The Sitka Assembly approved a sales tax holiday, when it met last night (Tuesday, 9-23-14). Sitka will be sales tax-free on November 28 and 29. That’s the Friday and Saturday following Thanksgiving.
The assembly also waded into a pair of disputes among neighbors — and said farewell to one of its own.
The Assembly voted unanimously in favor of the sales tax holiday — but that doesn’t mean everyone was happy about it.
“This is something I struggle with every year,” said member Phyllis Hackett. “And the reason I struggle with it is that I really believe the residents of Sitka should support our community year-round, and I really don’t think that this sets a positive precedent to do that.”
The tax holiday is meant to boost sales on the days known to retailers as Black Friday and Small Business Saturday. But Hackett said it’s not clear it does anything of the sort.
“I have talked to retailers in town,” she said “And every year I’ve been told, ‘It helps, it helps — some.’ But they don’t know that it’s really worth it.”
In the end, Hackett voted in favor, along with the rest of the assembly. Mayor Mim McConnell and member Ben Miyasato were absent.
The Assembly also took up a pair of long-running disputes among neighbors.
First, assembly members considered whether to extend the lease of city to the White Elephant thrift shop for 30 more years. The shop’s current lease expires in 2016.
But neighbors Dorothy Breedlove and Scott Harris complained that people dropping off donations at the White E often park in an easement on the property, blocking access to their homes. They asked the city to require that the White E resolve that issue as a condition of the lease.
Assembly member Pete Esquiro said that was a reasonable request.
“I believe that the owners of the property behind the White E are entitled to some relief from some of the problem that they’re experiencing,” he said.
The assembly voted to postpone a decision on the lease until the White E and its neighbors can come to some agreement.
The assembly then moved on to another easement issue: whether to grant a conditional use permit to Brian Jardine, to allow him to run a bed and breakfast out of his home at 105 Shelikof Way.
Jardine owns a charter fishing business, and neighbors had complained that he was housing clients at his home — essentially running a fishing lodge, without a permit, in an area zoned for residential use only. Jardine had applied for a permit in 2004 and 2006, and was denied. His house is accessed by an easement across the property of a neighbor, Richard Mulligan, and Mulligan complained about noise and traffic.
After several hearings this summer, the planning commission recommended the assembly deny the permit.
That decision rested in large part on a scathing memo from City Attorney Robin Koutchak, who wrote that Jardine had admitted to hosting “about 100 paying charter guests” each season. She invoked the legal concept of a plaintiff coming forward with “unclean hands.”
“That is when somebody comes to the table with unclean hands, when somebody is saying to you, ‘Well, yeah, you’ve told me twice before that I can’t have a permit, I can’t have a bed and breakfast going on, but I’ve been doing it anyways,'” Koutchak said. “And we’re expected to believe this time that they’re going to make things right, or they’re going to follow the rules…”
Koutchak said the incident raised larger concerns for the city.
Koutchak: What’s happened here is that there’s been a loophole…
Assembly member Mike Reif: And what is this loophole you’re referring to?
Koutchak: Well, the loophole is that there’s no enforcement…
Koutchak said that she has drafted changes to the Sitka General Code to clarify requirements for lodges and bed and breakfasts, and will present those proposals to the planning commission at its next meeting.
As for Jardine, Koutchak wrote, “as a matter of law, this is fairly straightforward.” She said the city could be sued for violating its own zoning code if it granted the permit.
Jardine was not present at the assembly meeting. But in a letter to the planning commission, he accused Koutchak of quote “smearing” his request.
Assembly members said they were uncomfortable making a decision that could cost Jardine his business. But in the end, they said they couldn’t justify granting the permit.
“I do not like these processes because we’re looking at an individual’s livelihood and their ability to live in town,” said Deputy Mayor Matt Hunter. “But…given this, all the evidence we have, the discussion from the planning commission, the items they went through one by one, I have to say, I agree that not all of the necessary conditions can be met to issue this conditional use permit.”
The assembly voted 5-0 to deny the permit.
Meanwhile, Tuesday night’s meeting began with a farewell, from departing assembly member Mike Reif. Tuesday night was Reif’s final assembly meeting. Next month marks the end of his three-year term, and he is not running for reelection.
Reif was visibly emotional as he thanked his family, fellow-assembly members, city staff and the community.
“Thank you Melanie, my love, I’m coming home a lot more often now,” Reid said. “Thank you, Assembly. It’s a pleasure to serve with a highly functional, and respectful group. Thank you City Administrator, Attorney and staff. You are professional, you are great, and you are so underrated. And lastly, thank you, community of Sitka. You are engaged, informed, passionate and demanding, and I would not want it any other way.”
You can find more coverage of the Sitka Assembly here.