Alaska voters who might be thinking about passing up next month’s state primary should think again. The statewide Coastal Zone Management program – which the legislature allowed to sunset last year – is coming back as a citizen initiative.

High-profile speakers on both sides of the issue were in Sitka this week (Wed 7-25-12) to put their case before the Chamber of Commerce.

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Ballot measure 2 is unusual. It is a complicated policy issue – the kind of thing that even the two people debating the question agreed is best left to a legislature. The Alaskan Senate, which is run by a bi-partisan coalition, voted to renew the program, which has been in place in the state since 1977.

The House, however, came to a standstill over the bill, and deadlocked 18-to-18 in the special session the governor called early last summer to address the matter.

The vote was partisan, with only four Republicans joining Democrats to reinstate Coastal Management, but you wouldn’t know that listening to Bruce Botelho and Kurt Fredricksson speak at the Sitka Chamber of Commerce. Both men have decades of service in state government; both made clear, well-reasoned arguments why – in Bothelho’s case — citizens should restore Coastal Management, and why – in Fredricksson’s case – the initiative is flawed.

Bruce Botelho is a four-term mayor of Juneau, the former state Attorney General, a director of the Alaska Municipal League, a former trustee of the Alaska Permanent Fund. He told the chamber that most of Alaska’s legislators had voted for some form of Coastal Zone management over the past two years, but had become divided over a larger principle.

“I think the overall tension that existed was about the allocation of power and responsibility between the state itself and communities.”

Botelho organized the Alaska SEA Party last year for a signature drive to put the question on the ballot – and signatures came in fast, in Sitka and in other coastal communities referred to in the law as “coastal districts.” It was sold – by Sitka Mayor Cheryl Westover and others – as a way to give local communities a seat at the table when granting permits for coastal development.

Botelho said this was another sticking point for the legislature.

“To what extent should statewide standards be fashioned by, and district plans be approved by, representatives of coastal districts.”

Fredricksson, however, sees things differently. Kurt Fredricksson served as the Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation under Republican governor Frank Murkowski, served as the Deputy Commissioner of the same department under Democratic governor Tony Knowles. He’s served on Alaska’s Coastal Management Policy Council, and has received a lifetime achievement award from the group.

His fundamental objection to the initiative is that it adds a regulatory layer to government that is not accountable to voters.

“One of my biggest concerns with ballot measure 2 is the board. As I mentioned earlier, I sat before boards that were very impressive, and they were made up of locally-elected officials. That to me is very important.”

Fredricksson is co-chair of “Vote No on 2.” He argued that special interests could capture seats on the appointed board proposed in the initiative. He also had a fundamental objection to local control, especially when developers are seeking required permits from the state.

“There’s really only one of three ways that comes out. It’s either denied – you can’t do that, you can’t build your house there, you can’t do that fill. Or you can – you do comply. Or you comply with stipulations – we can make it happen. Well, if Sitka says it can’t happen, DEC, Fish & Game, DNR – those agencies are obligated not to permit the project, even if it complies with their authorities. So, you’re in compliance with the air and water quality standards, for example, but you don’t comply with Sitka’s plan, so we can’t permit it because Sitka has said no.”

Sitka’s Coastal Zone Management coordinator, Marlene Campbell, was in the chamber audience. She said that she could recall only three times in the last thirty years when Sitka had refused to approve a permit under the coastal zone management program, the most recent a proposed mariculture project in a popular recreation area south of town.

Bruce Botelho stressed that coastal zone planning was – in Sitka, and most communities – built-in to local government. But without a statewide program, Sitka’s plans have no teeth.

“There is no obligation for the federal government to follow the local, enforceable policies. For that matter, some question whether the state government would be required to as well. They take the view that they’re not.”

After an hour of give-and-take, chamber president Gerry Hope dismissed members who had to get back to work or their businesses, but several stayed behind to ask questions of the speakers for almost another hour, among them: Mayor Westover, Sheila Finkenbinder (a staff member for Rep. Peggy Wilson, who supported the program in the legislature), and Marlene Campbell.

Here’s what they teased out of the debate:

Botelho conceded that the initiative authors wanted to keep it short, and so left out many specific points of law that existed in the previous Coastal Management Program.

Fredricksson admitted that he supported the Coastal Zone Management Program that existed from 1977 to 2011. He thought the flaws in the initiative were fixable, but did not think that the Legislature would have the political will to amend it.

Both attributed the current situation to the Legislature.

Alaskans will vote on their own Coastal Zone Initiative during the statewide primary on August 28.