A new version of the Haines tourism code could remove public hearings from the commercial tour permitting process. The change, proposed by borough staff, split board members at a recent Haines Tourism Advisory Board (TAB) meeting.

Under current law, all new tour applications or applications proposing expansion of an existing tour must go before the assembly for a public hearing and final approval.

Under proposed changes, if an applicant for a new tour checks all the boxes—obtains a business license, has general liability insurance, submits an application, pays requisite fees—then the clerk would approve the permit. If the borough received substantial complaints about the tour, the clerk would have the discretion to schedule a public hearing later on, Haines Borough clerk Alekka Fullerton said.

Fullerton said she worries the current process is too subjective. “The way we have it now, it comes down to who is asking for the permit, if they’re popular enough.” Removing the public hearing from the commercial tour application process would make it a more objective, ministerial process and would reduce administrative burden, she said.

Fullerton said she estimates that duties related to tour permits take up roughly 20% of her time as borough clerk. “There’s a lot of time setting up public hearings and responding to public inquiries… and working with tour operators on their presentations to the assembly.” She said she deals with eight to 10 new tour permits per year. Although, she acknowledged that her sample size only extends to the past two years.

TAB chair Andy Hedden, who has gone through the permitting process for his business, Haines Rafting Company, said, “I’ve found the public hearing process to be very political.” He said that while the current process works well for larger businesses, it is more challenging for smaller ones as they tend to have more limited resources.

Fullerton said she has received complaints from people who “feel like the public hearing is a barrier to entry for new, smaller tour operators… One person described it last year as a public flogging.”

“Public hearings are generally unpleasant in Haines,” Haines Shuttle operator Jonathan Richardson said. Richardson went through the tour permitting process for his business in 2017. A few members of the community used the public hearing for his business as a forum to air grievances about his trail grooming efforts, Richardson said. “Random things are brought up in public hearings that aren’t necessarily to the point. Some people don’t have a valid legal position, they just have someone they don’t like, but it isn’t something that should be considered when you’re imposing laws.”

The assembly approved Richardson’s permit despite comments about his trail grooming. Richardson said he believes tour permits generally get approved regardless of the nature of public commentary during the hearing. “It lets people have their say, but I’m not sure they feel any better, and I’m not sure it wins people over.”

Public hearings for tour permits are rarely a productive exercise, Richardson said. He said he could imagine a scenario where someone might raise a valid legal concern at a hearing, but “usually it’s just a popularity contest,” he said. “I don’t know of an instance where the public hearing was beneficial.”

However, several TAB members at the meeting expressed support for preserving the hearing requirements as a mediation tool between Haines residents and the tourism industry.

“If we take away public input, we will see a severe backlash,” TAB member and Alaska Mountain Guides owner Sean Gaffney said. Giving the public the opportunity to participate and the assembly the opportunity to respond to concerns by placing restrictions on a tour are steps necessary to preserve goodwill toward the tourism industry in Haines, said Gaffney, who went through a drawn-out public hearing process in 2017 to obtain a winter tour permit. The process involved three hearings and conditions were placed on his permit, but it was worth it, Gaffney said, because “it got the public on board.”

Gaffney said the proposed changes were also concerning from a business owner’s perspective since they would allow a public hearing and restrictions to come up after an operator had invested in the existing tour. “Tour operators should have certainty in their permit once approved because it requires significant investment… (having the public hearing upfront) helps people make an informed decision of whether to invest.”

The public hearing requirement for commercial tour permits was put in place in the early 2000s when the original Haines tourism code was created. At the time, as a result of increases in cruise ship passenger visits, Haines residents recognized a need for code regulating tourism activities, said Dan Egolf, a member of the tourism planning committee, an advisory group charged with creating recommendations for the original tourism code.

The tourism code was created to give the public a voice in the process, to improve public safety by ensuring operators met certain safety and insurance standards, and to protect legitimate tour businesses from encroachment by illegal operations, Egolf said. The committee looked at laws regulating tour permits in other Southeast Alaska communities including Sitka, Skagway, Juneau and Ketchikan and based their recommendations on the best practices in those communities, he said.

However, the public hearing requirement was one practice the committee did not borrow from another community. According to Chilkat Valley News reporting in 2018, Haines was the only community in Southeast to require a public hearing and assembly approval for a commercial tour permit.

Petersburg and Wrangell have no commercial tour permit approval process in code. Skagway does little to regulate permits except in designated National Historic Landmark Dyea Flats. Juneau, Ketchikan and Sitka have more stringent requirements, entrusting the tour permit approval process to various department heads. For example, in Sitka, the police chief approves commercial tour permits “upon finding that the applicant for the permit is fit, willing, and able to comply with the law.”

Although the public hearing requirement is unique to Haines, Egolf said removing it would be a mistake. A driving force behind the creation of the tourism code was the public’s desire to have a say whenever someone applied for a new permit or someone was expanding their business, he said. “That was really important. In Haines, you want to have everyone at the table to get something done. If you’re not at the table, you’re the dinner.”

Egolf said he believes there’s a fairness element to the assembly approval requirement. “If you’re going to be judged, it should be by a group of people, not just one person’s whim.” Leaving approval to the discretion of a single person sets up a situation for abuse of power, he said.

Heather Sanborne, owner of the small fishing charter company Haines Family Adventures, said the public hearing was beneficial to her as a tour operator. She went through the permitting process in 2017 after moving her business from Skagway to Haines for her “own personal quality of life.” She said getting up in front of a panel and having to articulate the reasoning behind a tour as well as safety and contingency plans is an integral part of the permitting process because it forces tour operators to think responsibly about their business and take their role in the community seriously. Haines’ permitting process for commercial tours is what keeps the community from resembling cruise ship towns like Skagway, she said.

While Sanborne said she feels strongly that new tour operators go before a review body and explain their ideas prior to approval, she said this need not take the form of a public hearing before the assembly. It could be a closed presentation before a designated board like TAB, she said. For her, the important part is ensuring operators have a clear vision for their tours and an understanding of how they will help grow the Haines tourism industry in a responsible way without sacrificing the authenticity of the community.

At the TAB meeting, members discussed compromises with the goal of preserving public input while lessening the burden on tour applicants and borough administration. Member Diana Lapham suggested requiring tour permit applicants go through the assembly’s commerce committee for approval. A hearing before the commerce committee is “not as formal and scary as a hearing before the full assembly,” she said. Under this suggestion, commerce committee recommendations would be forwarded to the assembly, which would have the final say.

Fullerton said she worried this alternative would turn one public hearing into two as applicants would be subjected to the commerce committee hearing and then the assembly would have the discretion to schedule more public hearings before reaching a final decision.

Board member Barbara Mulford asked what others thought of giving the tourism director the authority to approve commercial tour permits, removing the administrative burden from the clerk’s office and shifting it to the tourism department.

Gaffney said he would be hesitant to leave the matter to any single person’s discretion but could support moving permit renewals to the tourism department as long as the initial hearing requirement was preserved. However, this suggestion would do little to address concerns about the burdens placed on applicants and borough administration by the public hearing requirement.

Suggestions in a commerce committee meeting a few days later centered on the idea of mandatory public hearings only for tours that meet certain criteria, reducing the number of public hearings without leaving the discretion of whether to schedule one to the clerk. Proposals included standards based on the number of complaints a tour received and a size threshold, requiring only larger tour businesses to go through the public hearing process.

The problem with a size threshold, said Gaffney, who attended the commerce committee meeting, is that small tours can still have a large impact in the community. He used his idea for a small jet-ski tour as an example.

At the Tourism Advisory Board meeting, members tabled discussion of changes to public hearing requirements to leave time for consideration of other proposed changes to tourism code including the fee structure for tour permits and tour permit exemptions.

TAB members voted unanimously to recommend that the assembly extend the sunset date for tourism code changes put in place last year. These changes, which are set to expire on March 1, include: requiring that operators submit a safety and operating plan, mandating that operators report end of season tour numbers and raising the annual permit fee from $25 to $75 for a company with fewer than 5,000 annual clients and $250 for those with more than 5,000. The committee’s recommendation, if approved by the assembly, would extend the sunset date to April 30, giving members more time to come up with answers to the question of public hearing requirements.

This recommendation was supported at the commerce committee meeting. “This is a tough one,” said committee chair Gabe Thomas, referring to the public hearing requirement. “I can see arguments on both sides.” The commerce committee agreed that extending the sunset date would give TAB the time to “get it right,” and hopefully prevent the need to revisit the topic any time in the near future.

The next Tourism Advisory Board meeting is scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 20 at 12 p.m. At the meeting, members will resume discussions about public hearing requirements. and potential permit exemptions.