Fairbanks trail advocates must again speak up in support of the Comprehensive Trails Plan update. Even if you have commented before, the Assembly needs to know this is still important to you.
Here are a couple of options on what to say:
- You support the Trails Plan and want to see the Assembly pass it in its current form
- You support the Trails Plan and support the Platting Board recommendations (see more info below)
You could also encourage the Assembly NOT to make drastic sweeping changes to the borough code in an attempt to protect private property rights (see more info below).
WAYS TO COMMENT
You can comment to the Assembly via email or phone. The contact page is HERE.
That was the short and sweet version. Here are more details.
The Trails Plan update was to have been dealt with at the June 8 Borough Assembly meeting, but testimony and debate on the Climate Action and Adaptation Plan took the meeting well past midnight. All remaining items from the meeting, including the Trails Plan, were automatically moved to a June 20 continuation of the meeting.
On the up side, the Trails Plan will be one of the first things to be addressed at the meeting. See the agenda HERE.
However, there’s no guarantee of the outcome. The Trails Plan update might be passed, it might be defeated, or action on it might be delayed again. That’s why people need to comment.
BUT…only via phone calls and emails. There will be no opportunity to comment at the meeting. A public hearing on the ordinance was already held and since this is a meeting continuation, there will be no time for general citizen comments before the ordinance is addressed. However, you can still come and watch the Assembly debate the ordinance and possibly vote on it. The meeting is scheduled to start at 5:30pm, June 20. You can also listen to the Assembly meeting via Zoom, live webcast, or KUAC radio. Find out how HERE.
WAYS TO COMMENT
Comment to the Assembly via email or phone. The contact page is HERE.
PLATTING BOARD RECOMMENDATIONS
At the June 20 meeting, the Assembly will address recommendations from the Platting Board. I wrote about these in this POST. I support these recommendations. It may be that these recommendations are enough to convince a majority of the Assembly to vote for the Trails Plan update. Maybe not. That’s why your voice is needed. If you support these recommendations, let the Assembly know.
DANGERS OF DRASTIC CHANGES TO BOROUGH CODE
Several of Assembly members have said they are concerned that current laws do not protect private property owners enough. I disagree. I think private property owners have plenty of protections under current law. I wrote about their concerns and my response HERE.
Because of their concerns about private property rights, some Assembly members earlier tried to pass a change that would have gotten rid of the trail easement requirement in Title 17, the borough’s subdivision law (again, see that previous post HERE). Thankfully, Mayor Bryce Ward threatened a veto and the effort failed.
I completely oppose changing Title 17 so drastically, especially because it would affect ALL landowners in the borough, that includes the state and federal governments and corporate landowners. Even the borough government. Combined, these entities own thousands of acres of land in the borough. If that aspect of Title 17 is changed, none of the entities would have to give trail easements when subdividing. Trail advocates would only be able to encourage or beg these entities to give easements. As a result, we could lose access to trails we have used for decades.
Local law is the only way we can guarantee that trails running across large tracts of land public land are given an easement if the land is subdivided. Or large tracts of land owned by semi-public corporations, such as the University of Alaska and Mental Health Trust. Many trails running across that land were used by the public long before those lands were given to those entities.
I hope all the Assembly members realize how damaging such sweeping changes can be to the borough, but the effort to change Title 17 might come up again. That’s another reason to let the Assembly know you support the Trail Plan and the status quo.
GOOD INTENTIONS BUT SEVERE CONSEQUENCES
Assemblywoman Barbara Haney recently introduced an ordinance, 2023-30, that would allow property owners to opt out of certain parts of the borough’s Comprehensive Plan, such as the Trails Plan. I believe her efforts, and the earlier attempts to change Title 17, are well intentioned. The Assembly members who support these efforts are worried about small private landowners being steamrolled by the Borough government. Unfortunately, these efforts would affect ALL landowners, even public agencies, like the State of Alaska. Without the power of local law, our Fairbanks borough becomes the little guy in danger of being steamrolled.
COMPROMISE SO THAT WE KEEP LOCAL CONTROL
In an effort to find compromise, I have suggested working with the idea of variances. I wrote about that in my last blog post HERE. Variances allow our local boards – Platting Board, Planning Commission, and Assembly – to lift requirements from Title 17 or the Comprehensive Plan on a case-by-case basis. By using variances, the power to lift those requirements would be in the hands of local Fairbanksans, not in the hands of agency directors or corporate CEOs, the vast majority of whom do not live in Fairbanks. This boils down to local control. Do we local Fairbanksans keep the ability to make decisions that affect our lives, such as whether to keep access to a trail we have used for decades, or do we give that control to out-of-town directors and CEOs?
Here are the parts of 17.64 that would be relevant to trails.
The Platting Board may vary or modify requirements of this title if the variance request meets the criteria set forth below and the subdivision, with the variance, can be developed consistent with public welfare and safety:
2. The requirement is impractical or unnecessary due to specific circumstances or conditions of the subdivision or surrounding development.
So, if granting a trail easement during a subdivision is “impractical or unnecessary,” then a landowner can ask for a variance and, if the Platting Board is convinced, the board can grant that variance. (All decisions by the Platting Board can be appealed to the Assembly.)
TRAILS EASEMENT REQUIREMENT HAS NOT BEEN A PROBLEM
A variance from the trail easement requirement has been asked for – and granted – just once. It was done in 2020 regarding a subdivision of University of Alaska land, some of which was eventually included in Creamer’s Field Wildlife Refuge.
It needs to be noted that borough staff have worked with many other cases of subdivisions that involved trails on the Trails Plan and the staff have been able to work with landowners over any issues. Overall, the easement requirement for trails in the Trails Plan has NOT BEEN A PROBLEM.
Still, if the Platting Board recommendations are not enough for some Assembly members, then maybe some tweaking regarding variances is in order. It could be small, such as making sure that in the trail easement portion of the borough code there is a clear reference that variances can be asked for.
Or it might be larger, such as adding language to a particular section of code. For example, maybe adding language to the section about trail easements so that it says a variance may also be applied for if granting a trail easement creates an “undue burden” on the landowner. Then it would be up to the Platting Board to decide on a case-by-case basis, and its decision could be appealed to the Assembly. Making a change like that makes me a bit nervous. Surely, government agencies and corporations would look at that and ponder whether to use it to their own interest. But compromise usually requires some risk. A change like that would at least still allow Fairbanksans to set the terms with the huge government and corporate landowners.
Whatever we do, I firmly believe we must retain local control. Any significant changes made to borough code affects ALL landowners. If we make such changes, we lose our power over the biggest landowners in the borough, including public agencies and semi-public corporations, which own thousands of acres in the borough. In this respect, they are the big guys and the borough is the little guy.
Getting rid of certain aspects of our local laws means those huge landowners get to decide things like whether to respect the public’s right to use a trail that has been used for decades. But if we instead rely on variances, then local Fairbanks citizens – members of the Platting Board, the Planning Commission, and the Assembly – get to make those decisions.
MAKE SURE TO COMMENT
If you have read this far, I hope you understand the need to comment now, even if you have already commented before.