A resident who lives near a proposed heliport at 24 Mile Haines Highway is appealing the Haines Borough Planning Commission’s Dec. 8 approval of a conditional-use permit for the heliport, which would be used for heliskiing operations.

The planning commission voted 3-2 to approve a permit application from Chilkat River Adventures to build a heliport along the Chilkat River west of Wells Bridge — a decision that sparked opposition from at least two dozen residents and the Chilkat Indian Village of Klukwan.

“If the community wants to support the heli industry, I think it would be better done from a spot that doesn’t have noise pollution issues,” said Riley Hall, who lives about half a mile from the proposed heliport and filed the appeal.

Hall, a mental health counselor, told the planning commission that helicopter noise would impact his business. He sees his patients online.

“We bought our property for the peace and quiet of rural life. I grew up in Juneau with Temsco and Northstar helicopters flying over my home all summer and never would have bought this property had I known that it could have a similar noise pollution issue,” Hall wrote in a public comment prior to the commission’s vote. He told the CVN he “really doesn’t have an ax to grind against the heli industry” but that this proposed heliport site would impact nearby residents.

As of Dec. 20, only Hall had appealed the decision to the assembly, Kreitzer said. “We expect there may be more,” Kreitzer said Tuesday, two days before the deadline to file appeals.

The conditional-use permit approved by the planning commission is valid from Feb. 1 through May 3, 2023 and can be used only for heliski operations. The heliport is allowed to operate one helicopter March 1 through April 23 from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. unless otherwise noted on the borough’s heliski area map, according to permit conditions outlined by borough staff.

The commission’s heliport decision — along with its Dec. 8 recommendation to appoint two incumbent commissioners, who applied for re-appointment, over two professional engineers who haven’t served on the commission before — motivated some residents and elected officials to reconsider whether commissioners ought to be elected by voters, rather than appointed by the Mayor and confirmed by the assembly.

Resident Tom Morphet said he intends to circulate a ballot initiative petition to bring to a vote, via special election, the question of whether planning commissioners should be elected by the community. Assembly member Tyler Huling advocated for electing planning commissioners at last week’s assembly meeting. Borough clerk Alekka Fullerton said the change could be made either through a special election or assembly decision.

“The only way to make (commissioners) accountable is to make their seats directly connected to the voters,” Morphet told the CVN last week.

Currently the planning commission reviews applications and holds an internal election to recommend new members for appointment by the Mayor and approval by the assembly. If the commission were to become an elected body, it would be one of only a few in Alaska. According to a CVN survey of nine other Southeast communities — Sitka, Juneau, Petersburg, Skagway, Angoon, Hoonah, Wrangell, Ketchikan and Craig — only Petersburg elects their planning commission members.

Wrangell, however, elects members of its port commission. Its code also prohibits residents from serving on both the planning and port commissions.

In most of the communities surveyed by the CVN, planning commissioners are appointed by the Mayor and approved by the assembly. In a few — including Juneau, Seward and Valdez — commissioners are appointed by the assembly.

Alaska statute holds that in first- and second-class boroughs, planning commissioners are appointed by the Mayor subject to assembly confirmation, but home rule municipalities, like Haines, are empowered to do it differently, according to Lynn Kenealy, a local government specialist at the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development.

“Often we will find municipalities defaulting to what is in statute, until they are spurred for some reason to change this status quo,” Kenealy wrote in an email to the CVN. “Beyond that guess, I would not be able to posit why more home rule municipalities have not chosen to elect their commissioners.”

In Petersburg, where planning commissioners and other advisory board members are elected, filling seats “is sporadic,” Petersburg Borough Manager Steve Giesbrecht said.

“At this past election, the community put forward candidates for all of the open seats on the planning commission. This was the first time this has happened in the 11 years I’ve been here,” Giesbrecht wrote in an email to the CVN. “I believe the Petersburg community prefers the elected body instead of appointed and we will likely stay with that model,” he said, echoing what he told the CVN in 2018: He thinks Petersburg voters appreciate having a say in their local government.

Filling seats on Wrangell’s elected port commission also has been challenging, according to Wrangell clerk Kim Lane. “It’s definitely more difficult when you have an election,” she said, adding that some years no one has run for open seats on their five-member port commission.

Giesbrecht said when there are vacancies on Petersburg’s planning commission, the assembly appoints members (although he said there have been times when they have operated without a full commission). So the commission effectively has operated with some elected members and some appointed ones.

The issue of electing or appointing planning commissioners isn’t the only question about the commission that Haines residents and elected officials are concerned with. The assembly on Dec. 13 directed the borough clerk to draft an ordinance that would raise the number of affirmative votes required for the planning commission to take action.

The seven-member body, operating with five members, approved Chilkat River Adventures’ heliport permit application with a 3-2 vote. Borough staff, citing a memo from borough attorney Brooks Chandler, said code currently requires that the commission have a quorum (four members) present and only a majority vote of the quorum to pass a motion.