Local News

Herring Cove congestion solutions sought

The Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly wasn’t able to take action on some of its agenda items on Monday, because a legal notice of the meeting wasn’t published in time.

Under the Open Meetings Act, local governments must provide adequate public notice of meetings and the agenda items, so that the public is aware of what will be decided during a meeting. Because of the snafu, the Assembly postponed a resolution related to the disposal of borough-owned property, an agreement with the Alaska Department of Natural Resources for a log transfer area on Gravina Island; and an executive session to discuss the borough’s planned lawsuit against the state over education funding.

Separate notices on three scheduled ordinances had been published in time, so the Assembly was able to vote on those. Assembly members also heard a presentation about proposed solutions for summer congestion at Herring Cove, along with some public comment on that issue.

Lynn Caldwell owns property at Herring Cove. He had been working with the borough’s Planning Department to provide a viewing platform, some bus parking space and other amenities, to help alleviate the congestion out there and make a little money. However, he said after watching for one summer, he’s not sure his plan will succeed without some changes.

“I cannot finish developing this property and go through all the hoops and provide shelters, bathrooms, and whatever for all these people if I’m not going to make any money at it,” he said. “And the tour operators – they’d be happy to park on my property – but if I charge them to park on my property, they aren’t going to park there if they can park in the middle of the road for free.”

Caldwell is in favor of some kind of regulation and enforcement, for safety’s sake if nothing else.

Herring Cove is a popular destination for summertime tourists, and many tour bus companies shuttle visitors out to that South End spot throughout the season. Buses park where they can, and tourists walk back and forth across South Tongass Highway to watch salmon and bears from a narrow bridge spanning the creek below.

Bob Brown, a driver with Northern Tours, agrees with Caldwell on one point: There is a problem, and safety is the biggest concern. Brown suggests a separate bridge dedicated to pedestrians. If that isn’t possible, he thinks the existing bridge should be turned into a single-lane structure during the summer, which would allow more room for tourists and would slow down vehicle traffic.

“We are really handling a large volume of people off these cruise ships,” he said. “And we need to be able to establish ways, for the season, to make it productive, and not interfere that much with the property owners out there.”

Steve McDonald, another tour operator, agrees with Brown’s bridge solution. McDonald estimates that about 50 vehicles take tourists to Herring Cove on a regular basis throughout the summer, adding up to more than 100,000 people visiting the area during the season.

Assembly Member Mike Painter pointed out that the bridge is part of the state highway, so the borough can’t do much more than make a suggestion.

Tory Korn, who manages Alaska Rainforest Sanctuary, told the Assembly that he and other officials at that tour business believe they can help.

“We went ahead and undertook a master plan for our own property, and now feel very confident we can work with the borough to present a private enterprise solution to the parking and other infrastructure needs to provide a safe and high-quality tour experience for visitors and locals alike,” he said. “While I don’t think a solution for the 2014 operating season is likely, I do think that cooperation from all stakeholders can be a major part in developing a sustainable long-term solution for Herring Cove.”

Northern Tours driver Marie Zellmer said that something obviously needs to be done out at Herring Cove. She likes the idea of using cruise passenger head tax funds to provide some infrastructure.

Zellmer had one suggested improvement that she said could be done in time for this year’s summer season: “Better access to the beach. If you go out to Herring Cove, you’ve got this little muddy path down to a rock wall, which all our fishermen for all these years have had to walk down. Of course, you only have access to the beach at low tide because it’s all private property along the edges. A proper gravel walkway and an actual staircase would be a quick, not-too-expensive addition that would help our private citizens and our visitors at any time of the year.”

Borough planner Chris French later gave a presentation on options for Herring Cove. The proposed solution would establish a program to issue permits for commercial tour operators taking passengers to the area.

He also suggests fines for drivers that stop on the bridge or on the highway.

Assembly Member Glen Thompson said he would want to use cruise passenger head tax funds for any solution that the borough chooses. He also suggests expanding the borough’s code enforcement department to make sure the rules are followed.

An ordinance on the issue will come back to the Assembly at a later meeting.

The Assembly recessed Monday’s meeting, and is scheduled to reconvene at 5 p.m. Friday in Borough Assembly chambers to take care of the postponed items.

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