Local News

Assembly hears Benchlands plan, keeps Picnic Cove floathouses

The Assembly voted on Tuesday night to continue allowing floathouses at Picnic Cove, south of Sitka.

The Assembly was asked to consider removing Picnic Cove from the list of sites where floathouses are allowed. Floathouses are now allowed in four places near Sitka: Camp Coogan, Jamestown Bay, and Eastern Bay, plus Picnic Cove.

Marlene Campbell, the city’s government relations director, brought the proposal before the Assembly. She said that for two decades, the city has received public complaints that the single floathouse now in Picnic Cove blocks public access to the area. Campbell said that now might be a good time to reconsider the city’s policy; the floathouse’s longtime owner died recently, and there has been interest from several people in new floathouse permits for the cove.

Several members of the public spoke against the proposal. They suggested there was something larger at stake in the decision to limit floathouses – something at the core of Sitka’s identity. Resident John DeLong spoke for many when he said he feared it would limit the already dwindling ability to experience Alaska the way it could be experienced just a few decades ago.

“We would be leaving out some of the young people who would like to enjoy Sitka as we got to enjoy it 20, 30 years ago,” DeLong said. “I would really hate to see that be taken away from them.”

The assembly agreed. Member Mike Reif said that while he understood that floathouses can turn public land into de facto private space, the importance of maintaining opportunities for a distinct Alaskan lifestyle outweighed the harm to the public.

“We live in Alaska, we happen to have a national forest and other public lands all around us. 99-percent of the land is public,” Reif said. “If I was in California or some other coastal area where 90-percent of it was private, I’d say keep this public and keep it public access, do not allow a quote unquote quasi-private use of it by floathouses.”

“I’m going to support the private side here,” he said. “Because the public, the day-boating public, has many, many choices still.”

The assembly also heard an update on a proposed subdivision in the Benchlands. Todd Fleming and Jeremy Twaddle of the local contractor Sound Development, LLC, presented their first ideas for the subdivision during a work session before the assembly’s regular meeting.

Sound Development bought a parcel of land near Kramer Avenue from the city last fall. Fleming and Twaddle don’t plan to build houses themselves on the site; instead they plan to put in the necessary infrastructure to make the land ready for new homes, and then sell the lots to buyers who would build their own.

The city paid $3-million for the full Benchlands property back in 2007. While it wasn’t an explicit condition of the purchase, affordable housing was a priority for many when the land was purchased, and Mayor Mim McConnell asked whether the newest plan would honor that intent.

Twaddle said that Sound Development planned to write in limits on how large houses on the site could be.

“By limiting to this square footage of, say, 1400 square feet, you’re going to automatically limit the value of the home,” he said.

Twaddle said he didn’t see any other way, as a developer, to mandate affordability.

“That’s really going to be the only controlling, limiting factor,” he said. “It would be very difficult for us to try and go in as a regulatory authority, and go, ‘You can only realize this much inflation over this period of time,’ or things like that. It would be difficult to do that. I think just the simplest mechanism is to say, hey, your house can be X amount of square feet and that’s it.”

The current proposal envisions seventeen lots on a new cul-de-sac to be built off Kramer Avenue, near Jacobs Circle. Twaddle said they won’t know how much they expect to charge for the lots until further along in the development process.

Fleming and Twaddle stressed that the plan is in the very early stages, with nothing yet set in stone.

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