Trail advocates can still comment on “The Case of the ADMA Trails and Creamer’s Field.” The deadline for comment is noon, February 11.
This is an easement variance request regarding a portion of the Alaska Dog Mushers Association trails involved in a subdivision application. The request was denied by the Fairbanks North Star Borough Platting Board in December. (The platting board’s decision can be found here. (The vote was 3-2) It has been appealed to the FNSB Planning Commission. The appeal is on the February 11 meeting agenda for the commission.
Information on how to comment is at the end of this post. Since my last post (which I updated because of an error) I have learned more. I read the Planning Commission packet and talked to two of the main people involved: Bryant Wright, the FNSB trails coordinator, and John Wros, of The Conservation Fund.
(To fully understand the appeal and the borough’s response you’ll need to look through the Planning Commission meeting packet. The appeal report starts on page 51. Appeal statements start on page 58. The report runs to page 66, closing with a recommendation by borough staff to deny the appeal.)
The issue is still complicated, and I still don’t see easy answers. However, I think I have figured out how to phrase this into a single question.
“Should the borough waive one of its most powerful tools for protecting trails in order for other entities to complete a planned land deal that would preserve some of the land in a wildlife refuge (including trail protection) while leaving portions of some trails on the rest of the land in the same situation they are in today, which has given them historical protection but little legal protection?”
OK. I said it would be single question. I didn’t say it would be simple. So, I’ll parse the question below to help explain things. I’ve also created a map for your reference. (The map in my original post had the incorrect shape for Tract B.)
“SHOULD THE BOROUGH…”
By borough, I mean the borough government, but I also mean all residents of the borough, especially those trail users who care about the ADMA trails.
“…WAIVE ONE OF ITS MOST POWERFUL TOOLS FOR PROTECTING TRAILS…”
Title 17 is the part of the borough code (laws) that describes how subdivisions should be dealt with. Title 17 orders that when land is subdivided, public-use easements will be created for any trails on the Fairbanks Comprehensive Recreational Trails Plan (CRTP) that cross that land. Public-use easements ensure that the public will have access to the trails into the future. (Creating park land is another powerful way to protect trails.) The ADMA trails are in the CRTP.
As part of a land deal (described below) The Conservation Fund has asked the borough to waive that part of Title 17 for a subdivision of land that includes portions of some ADMA trails. The Platting Board denied the request. The Conservation Fund has appealed to the Planning Commission. Trails Coordinator Wright and the borough Trails Advisory Commission have recommended against waiving the right.
“… IN ORDER FOR OTHER ENTITIES…”
“…TO COMPLETE A PLANNED LAND DEAL THAT WOULD PRESERVE SOME OF THE LAND IN A WILDLIFE REFUGE (INCLUDING TRAIL PROTECTION)…”
The Conservation Fund has funding to purchase land next to Creamer’s Field State Migratory Waterfowl Refuge, which is run by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, in order to have the land be included in the refuge. The University of Alaska has a lot of land butting up to the west side of the refuge. (The Conservation Fund is already purchasing a 320-acre block of land from UA for this purpose, but that deal doesn’t require a subdivision.)
The Conservation Fund wants to buy another 425-acre parcel from UA to be included in the refuge. (See blocks labeled Tracts A and B on the map.) However, UA does not want to sell all that land. It has a lease with Great Northwest for peat and gravel extraction on Tract B (265 acres). The land was given to UA to make money, so it’s understandable why UA would want to keep the portion that is making money.
UA is willing to sell Tract A (160 acres). But both tracts are part of a single block of land that must be subdivided in order to be dealt with separately. That’s where Title 17 (remember that?) comes into play. Borough law requires that the trails on both tracts be given easements as part of the subdivision process. But neither UA nor the refuge wants the easements.
Also, about the word “planned.” Wros says The Conservation Fund has several documents and legal proceedings in place that virtually guarantee the land will get transferred to the refuge once the subdivision takes place. However, Wright points out the while the exchange seems highly likely, it isn’t legally guaranteed. Also, the borough has not been able to see at least one of the key documents because the party involved wants to keep it private.
“…WHILE LEAVING PORTIONS OF SOME TRAILS ON THE REST OF THE LAND IN THE SAME SITUATION THEY ARE IN TODAY, WHICH HAS GIVEN THEM HISTORICAL PROTECTION BUT LITTLE LEGAL PROTECTION?”
UA has allowed the ADMA trails on its land for more than 30 years via a license agreement in place since 1982. The license allows the trails to be moved, if necessary, and can be revoked by UA with 90 days notice. It has generally worked very well. One trail was rerouted in recent years due to peat mining activity, but little has happened otherwise. If the variance is granted, the ADMA trail segments in Tract B would remain covered by the license. They would also still be covered by Title 17 if that land were subdivided in the future.
WHY NOT EASEMENTS?
The refuge has told The Conservation Fund it doesn’t want easements. A majority of ADMA trails are already on the refuge and exist without easements. I’m sure easements could potentially cause those trail portions to be harder to manage. It’s certainly not an impossible situation, but I’m sure from the refuge’s point of view, the trails coming into the refuge will have plenty of protection. This land isn’t going to be developed. So why add potential management difficulties?
UA doesn’t want to grant easements. I can also see where UA is coming from. The license gives them a lot more flexibility than easements would. And historically UA has been a great neighbor in this regard. So, let’s just keep things the way they have been for years, right?
EASEMENTS GIVE STRONG PROTECTION
But I can also appreciate the view of Wright and the TAC. The trail segments in Tract A that would go into the refuge are probably not a big worry. (There’s an issue regarding the allowance of motorized use, but let’s not deal with that right now.) But there are only about 600 feet of ADMA trails on Tract A.
Tract B has about 8,000 feet of trail (1.5 miles). It’s a critical part of the 19.7-mile trail. Under the UA license the trail segments have no real legal protection. UA is under increasing pressure to make money due to shrinking state financial support. At some point, will an opportunity arise to make money with the land that is too good to pass up? Will that opportunity allow for the trails? Who knows? This is a chance to make sure the trails are protected. Oh, and the peat mining is still happening. Will the trail have to be moved again? Or maybe blocked?
A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE?
The Conservation Fund is kind of stuck in the middle. Wright has suggested other options, such as asking for a variance on just Tract A or asking to create easements that don’t follow the current trail routes and a variance for making the trails currently line up to the easements. (Wright hasn’t said he would outright support the other options. He would have to see the details.) But UA and the refuge don’t like the other options. Wros says without the variance there’s no land deal.
(In my last post I wrote that the funding source for The Conservation Fund’s purchase would expire at the end of 2019. The Conservation Fund has since gotten a 6-month extension.)
THE OTHER LAND
Oh, and then there are the two blocks of land to the west of Tract A that ADMA trails also cross. Joe Nava owns 40 acres and wants to donate it to the refuge. (Trail segments on Nava’s land have an easement.) Henrik Wessel owns 49 acres of land and wants to sell. (I don’t think those trail segments have an easement, but I’m not positive.) The Conservation Fund wants to buy it. But the refuge wants only contiguous land to the refuge, and those blocks of land won’t be contiguous without Tract A.
So, there you have it. Sorry, I tried to make it as simple as I could, but I know it’s not simple. On the upside, we are basically trying to figure out how best to protect trails, not discussing whether to save them from existence. So, that’s good! Without that provision in Title 17 we wouldn’t be having this discussion, and trails in the borough would be much less protected.
If you feel strongly about this issue, make sure you comment to the Planning Commission.
HOW TO COMMENT
The appeal is scheduled for the February 11 Planning Commission meeting. According to Kristen Walker of the FNSB Community Planning Department:
- Members of the public can submit written or oral comments on the appeal.
- Comments must be limited to the dedication of trail easements (they cannot be about other portions of the subdivision application).
- ORAL: Members of the public can give up to 3 minutes of oral comments about the appeal during the Feb 11 meeting during the comment time for the appeal (not during “citizen comments” at the beginning of the meeting). The commission meets in the borough assembly chambers (907 Terminal St.) starting at 6 p.m.
- WRITTEN: Members of the public can submit written comments, but they should be submitted no later than noon on Feb 11 to ensure they are received by the commission.
- Written comments can be delivered to the Community Planning Department (907 Terminal St, 2nd Floor)
- Emails can be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’ve pondered this for a long time. I think both sides make strong cases. In my last post I supported the variance for the overall sake of the trails. I’ve decided to keep that stance. I do not like losing the opportunity to give a big portion of the 19.7-mile loop strong protections. But if the variance is granted, that portion of trail will remain in the situation it has been in since 1982. Not great, but I think it’s worth it for the entire package, which will increase the size of the refuge and giving those trail segments strong protections. Hopefully, another opportunity will come in the future for saving the trail segments in Tract B.
I would like to point out that both Wright and Wros have spoken respectfully about each other. While they disagree and are a bit frustrated, neither has denigrated the other (at least that I have read or heard). That’s very encouraging given the state of some of the public disagreements in this state and country.
P.S. I have tried hard to get all these facts straight, but I probably made some mistakes. Please forgive me for those. I also left out some related issues, but good gravy this is already complicated enough.