State agencies approve hovercraft tour on river

Conditional use permit, lease now required from municipality; oversight leaves tour vendor frustrated

By ANDREW CREMATA

An application for a proposed hovercraft tour in the Skagway River submitted to the state by Hover North tours has been approved, but the tour may still need the municipality’s blessing.
Originally, tour owner Luke Rauscher thought approval by the state would mean he could proceed with plans to begin operations by next summer. However, an apparent oversight by the municipal clerk means Rauscher will have to obtain a conditional use permit from the municipality before getting his tour business off the ground.
In a letter dated Dec. 18, Sheila Cameron of the Department of Fish and Game’s habitat division wrote, “…The State concurs with the certification that (Rauscher) submitted and signed, that the project is consistent with the Alaska Coastal Management Program.”
Rauscher was under the impression that if the state found his proposed tour to be compliant with the ACMP, there would be no other hurdles to clear before being allowed to use the mouth of the Skagway River as a hovercraft staging area.
In a letter dated Oct. 22 from Municipal Clerk Marj Harris to Claire Batac, the project review assistant at the Department of Natural Resources (which monitors ACMP applications), Harris states, “The proposed change to this project removes it from an area that required a conditional use permit through our zoning regulations….”
The “change” to the project referred to in Harris’ letter pertained to Rauscher’s original plan to stage the hovercraft in the Seventh Pasture parking area just south of the Pat Moore Bridge. Last spring, a conditional use permit was granted by the Planning and Zoning Commission, but an appeal was filed, and it was subsequently revoked by the Skagway Borough Assembly.
Rauscher said he incorporated a different staging area when he developed his new plan, hoping that dealing with the state would be easier than dealing with the municipal government.
However, in an e-mail dated Nov. 11, Assemblyman Mike Korsmo wrote, “…The city staff was incorrect in assuming the hovercraft tour did not have to go through a conditional use permit process.”
Korsmo cited P&Z code 19.06.080 Sec. A-2-e, which states that water dependent tours require a conditional use permit.
“…It looks like there will be a second chance through planning and zoning process,” read the e-mail. “Hopefully all users of that area are aware what is going on and voicing their concerns. If only dogs could write.”
The section of code cited by Korsmo lists “water dependent” tours as an allowed use of the area. Other sections of code say such operations have priority in the area.
Concerning the apparent oversight, Harris said via telephone, “I screwed up.”
Harris explained the tour would use municipal land as clients walk on and off to load and unload, and the hovercraft itself would be parked on municipal land.
“On municipal property (Rauscher) still needs a lease,” said Harris. “He still needs permission to utilize land owned by the city.”
In a letter to the mayor and assembly, Rauscher outlines a series of events during the last permit process, and the more recent one, in which he claims procedures at the municipal level were handled “badly.”
He writes, “The municipal clerk, Marj Harris, is requiring Hover North to acquire a conditional use permit to operate a commercial tour in Waterfront Zoning; in Alaska Tidelands Survey #4. After sending the state a confirmation letter that I did not require a conditional use permit.”
Rauscher asks in the letter why his tour is being singled out for the permit process when other water related tour vendors have not been required to do so in the past.
In response to this question, Harris said via telephone that the permit was required in Rauscher’s case because he was loading and unloading from the shoreline. She said other tour vendors, such as fishing charter captains, were not required to obtain a permit because they used mooring slips in the small boat harbor for loading and unloading of passengers.
When asked why river rafting companies on the Taiya River in Dyea who use a turnout near the campground for loading purposes – an area zoned residential – were not required to obtain a conditional use permit, Harris said they were grandfathered in. That is, they began their tour operations before conditional use permits were required.
Rauscher takes issue with this point in his letter, stating, “Some operator’s say that they are “grandfathered,” yet the municipal code states that if the land is not used for 90 consecutive days that the property must comply with current codes.”
When asked about Rauscher’s claim that he was being singled out to obtain a permit, Korsmo said via telephone, “Other tour vendors probably should have got them. If it’s on the books we should be following through with it.”
When asked why the municipality chose Rauscher’s proposed tour to begin requiring water related tour vendors to obtain conditional use permits, Korsmo said, “I don’t know. It never occurred back then… It allows people to weigh in on it, which is a good thing.”
“(Rauscher) thinks he’s being picked on, but it’s a controversial issue,” said Korsmo.
Just how P&Z will interpret the code this time around remains to be seen. Even if the permit is granted, an appeal could lead to the rejection of the permit at the assembly level, sending Rauscher back to square one once again.
Rauscher ends his letter to the municipality by stating, “Further communications regarding the conditional use can be handled through my attorney….”
Rauscher said via telephone he would fight the legality of the conditional use permit requirement, but if it was determined that it was legally required he would go through the process once again.
Concerning the municipal oversights and changing criteria for start-up of his tour business, Rauscher said, “It’s been frustrating to say the least.”
P&Z did recently address another water tour proposal, rejecting a conditional use permit request from Dave Button for a kayak-raft tour on the lower Taiya and across the bay to Skagway. The commission cited safety concerns about the operation, and the potential for over-crowding in the state-owned turnout in Dyea. Button appealed the decision to the assembly, which upheld the commission’s ruling.

Governor’s 2010 budget includes old STIP projects for Skagway
Taiya River bridge replacement, other top priorities will have to wait for State Legislature

By JEFF BRADY

Gov. Sarah Palin last week unveiled her budget for the 2010 fiscal year. It included $3.12 million spread among four Skagway projects, but none were top priorities of the municipality.
The following projects were listed in the capital budget, using funds from the regional cruise passenger tax:
Through the Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development, Skagway would receive:
• 5th to 7th Avenue Boardwalk, $400,000.
• Congress Way Sidewalk Widening, $1.3 million.
• Port Area Connector Pathway, $800,000.
Through the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, the community would receive:
• Skagway Gateway Pedestrian Improvements, $620,000.
There is $8 million set aside in DOT’s budget for a statewide Bridge Inventory, Inspection, Monitoring, Rehabilitation and Replacement Program, but DOT was unable to confirm by press time if any of the money would go to the municipality’s top priority, replacement of the Taiya River Bridge.
Borough Manager Alan Sorum said it appeared the governor’s team worked off the 2004 State Transportation Improvements Project (STIP) list for funding the Skagway projects.
Sorum said wastewater treatment plant improvements remain the borough’s top priority for use of regional cruise ship tax funds. The municipality has asked for $5 million for that project.
Its top capital project priority for the upcoming legislative session is $4 million for the wave barrier project.
The legislature also can make changes to the governor’s budget, and the governor can make line item vetoes after legislators pass the final budget.
Overall, the governor’s operating and capital budgets total $4.9 billion in general funds and $11.2 billion in total funds. The proposed FY2010 general fund and total fund spending represents a 7 percent decrease from FY2009.
This comparison excludes the FY2009 one-time resource rebate of $746.4 million and appropriations to savings, according to a state press release.
The budget also proposes to spend less than the amount of revenue projected for the next fiscal year. For FY2010, the oil price forecast is $74.41 per barrel, production of 665,000 barrels per day, and total unrestricted revenue of $5.27 billion. Based on the fall revenue forecast, the governor’s proposed spending level in FY2010 will result in a surplus of $388.7 million. These funds would flow into the constitutional budget reserve at the end of the fiscal year.
“We were conservative in developing our budget and targeted a lower revenue number based on $71 per barrel,” said Gov. Palin. “The fall revenue forecast again highlights how volatile our revenue cycles can be. Working with the legislature, we have made good decisions over the past two years – putting money into savings accounts and investing in infrastructure that will help develop our resources and our communities.”
Highlights of Gov. Palin’s budget priorities for fiscal year 2010:
• Full Funding of K-12 Education, $1.05 billion total funds including $118 million for intensive needs students.
• School Major Maintenance – 20 projects - $40.5 million (Skagway’s sprinkler project apparently just missed the cut).
• Pre-School Pilot Program, $2 million.
• Head Start Program, $7.7 million.
• Denali Kid Care, $34.9 million.
• Full funding of retirement costs unfunded liability, $451.2 million. • Oil & Gas exploration tax credits, $300 million.
• Community Revenue Sharing, $60 million.
• Gasline Projects, $82.1 million - including $20 million for the AGIA reimbursement fund.
• Capital federal highway, aviation and water projects $887.3 million including $88.6 million general fund match.
• DOTPF Highway & Aviation, $772.5 million ($49.6 GF match)
• DEC Village Safe Water $91.6 million ($39 GF match)
• DEC Municipal water/sewer, $23.2 million
• Capital energy projects, $98 million
• $50 million to capitalize Renewable Energy Grant Fund
• $41 million AK Energy Authority
• $7.2 million for AK Housing Finance Corporation
Draft budget bills and more detailed information on the budget are available on the Office of Management & Budget website at http://omb.alaska.gov/

Manager preparing to leave Jan. 5

Mayor wants Sorum to continue as special projects manager

Mayor Tom Cochran says Borough Manager Alan Sorum would still like to leave the municipality Jan. 5, and the mayor has proposed that Sorum then be retained as a special projects manager.
The mayor said he would make the recommendation at a special Skagway Borough Assembly meeting on Dec. 29.
“I talked with him and we will try to make (Sorum’s departure) the 5th,” Cochran said. “We’ll run it by the assembly.”
Sorum submitted his resignation in an e-mail to the mayor and assembly members on Nov. 24, but a 60-day-notice clause in his contract would have had him working until Jan. 23.
Sorum has a new job starting at Prince William Sound Community College in Valdez, and requested the earlier departure time due to the “work environment” at City Hall.
The mayor said he has the borough attorney looking at the possibility of keeping Sorum on as a special projects manager, so he could continue work on the clinic construction project and port development issues.
“I’d like to keep him on, at a minimum, on those two projects,” Cochran said.
“He’s been riding herd on the construction of that (clinic) building,” Cochran said. The project is due to be completed in August 2009.
Sorum also has been active in port promotion and the recently completed Skagway Port Development Plan. Just this past week, Sorum and the mayor gave representatives of the Denali Pipeline group a tour of port facilities. A couple days later, TransCanada, the competing gas pipeline company, called and wanted a copy of the port plan.
Cochran has asked Gary Danielson to serve on the hiring committee for a new manager, and will have one more name to submit for assembly approval on Dec. 29. The committee will also include Cochran and assembly members Mark Schaefer and L.C. Cassidy. The manager’s job has not yet been posted, but Cochran said they would likely go with the same advertisement used two years ago.
The assembly has not met since Dec. 4. Last week’s regular meeting on the 18th was cancelled due to lack of a quorum. A special meeting also was cancelled earlier in the week.
Borough treasurer Cindy O’Daniel and administrative assistant/deputy clerk Michelle Calver had requested the special meeting to discuss recent statements by the mayor and some assembly members relating to the possible reasons for Sorum’s resignation and a suggested “reorganization” at City Hall. The special meeting time fell during the school Christmas program on Dec. 16 and was cancelled. It will be rescheduled for some time in January after Calver returns from vacation.
In her e-mail requesting the meeting, O’Daniel wrote that there had been no communication with them about the assembly’s concerns and that they are “entitled to some answers” through open communication.
“I think it is important for the assembly to consider that there are always two sides to every story, and to not have open communication obviously does not resolve the issues,” she wrote.
She added that they have worked “diligently and cooperatively” for the municipality and its employees for many years, have the best interest of the community at heart, and “deserve the opportunity to know if we are falling short and if so, how.
“It does not seem that we have been given the opportunity to discuss our concerns or to hear yours. We believe we deserve the same respect and dedication from the assembly that we have given to this office, the assembly and the community over the years.”

Jackie Schaefer holds up her award at the Yuletide Ball. JB

Jackie Schaefer receives 2008 Helen B. Clark Award

Jackie Schaefer, a caring individual who has helped seniors in the community and organized numerous projects for the Emblem Club and other good causes, was named the winner of the 2008 Helen B. Clark Award at this year’s Yuletide Ball.
Drawing from her nomination letter, Skagway News publisher Jeff Brady said the following about Schaefer before making the announcement and award presentation:
“This woman embodies the essence of community spirit, which she has exhibited very quietly for many years,” he read. “She lavished great love and care for two outstanding women of our community, Elma McMillen and Connie Conard (both HBC award winners) during their final days. She has held every Emblem Club office, and she does her best to make sure we all get our birthdays on the club-sponsored Community Calendar. She’s all over raffle tickets and bake sales. She also helps with the Bowlers Bazaar, Sweetheart Dinner, New Year’s party, and Yuletide. Being well trained by Connie, she also now keeps track of bowling scores. And she continues to visit our seniors, when they are sick and well. She is our ultimate Secret Sister.”
Schaefer hobbled up to the mike on crutches – she had injured her knee a couple days before – and thanked the community. She was presented an antique wood letter “J” with an inscription in brass on the back.
Brady also made special recognition of three new nominees who were considered for the award this year:
• Cindy O’Daniel was recognized for her work on the Skagway Child Care Council, cooking at fund-raisers, running the summer basketball camp, coaching T-ball and Little League, serving as softball commissioner, and running the 4th of July Tourney for 12 years.
• Lynne Cameron was recognized for her work as nurse practitioner in the community, “going beyond what would be expected from most medical professionals, taking those late calls in the middle of the night, and caring for the sick and elderly on her own time.”
• Barbara Kalen was recognized for her many years promoting the arts in the community as chair of the Skagway Fine Arts Council, and for founding the Mini Folk Festival and bringing many acts to town.
The award is named for the first recipient of the Skagway Community Service Award in 1988. Before Helen Clark passed away, she agreed to have the award named for her, so future generations could remember her volunteer spirit. The award can recognize volunteer work in the community over the past year or so, or a lifetime of service.
The award is sponsored by The Skagway News Co. Nominations are accepted from the public, and past winners make up the selection committee.
“It’s an extremely tough job to settle on one winner among about a dozen nominees from the past few years, so we also make sure any new nominees receive special recognition,” Brady said.

To read all the stories in the News, including complete borough and school digests, letters and commentary, police and court reports, and view our many advertisers for Skagway products and services, you must subscribe to the real thing. Out of town subscriptions cost $35 per year for second class mail, $45 for first class mail. Send a check to Skagway News, Box 498, Skagway, AK 99840 or call us at 907-983-2354 with a credit card number.