PALMER — The Mat-Su Borough Assembly voted down Ordinance 21-025 at their meeting on Tuesday by a 4-3 vote, failing an ordinance aimed at protecting wetlands in the Mat-Su Borough. Mat-Su Borough Planner Ted Eischeid presented the ordinance to the assembly that he said was brought forward following “inconsistent decisions” from the Army Corps of Engineers on wetlands mitigation in the borough.
“In this case a large project got a lot of people’s attention and it created a discussion about it. This is good for the Mat-Su borough and for Mat-Su borough resources, said Eischeid. “The Mat-Su Borough has invested a lot of money into these issues and wetlands provides some of those services that support those investments.”
Ordinance 21-025 had previously been passed by the Mat-Su Fish and Wildlife Commission and the Mat-Su Borough Planning Commission prior to arriving at the Assembly. Eischeid said that there had been no public comment in opposition up to that point, but a lengthy public comment section was heard with numerous members arguing on either side of the issue.
“The bottom line is we don’t have the expertise. We’re saying that the corps of engineers is not effective enough, they’ve been around for years and years and have led this great nation in development and now we’re saying that the corps is not capable or not qualified but we don’t have the expertise in the Valley that’s going to add additional staffing, probably at a pretty high price. So I’m concerned what his ordinance is all about. I’m certainly against,” said Ron Johnson.
The Army Corps of Engineers is the main Federal agency responsible for enforcement of the Clean Water Act. Eischeid testified that the decision on the Crooked Creek project had led to questions about the inconsistent decisions from the Army Corps.
“The ordinance will give the Mat-Su Borough the authority to preserve its own lands without stopping development and without increasing paperwork for developers by using already existing mechanisms within the Mat-S while ensuring proper habitat protections and benefiting from an increased revenue stream ,” said Susitna River Coalition Executive Director Melissa Heuer. “As the Mat-Su continues to be one of the fastest growing population centers in the country, it is key that we have the tools to protect our valuable wetlands. Wetlands provide valuable ecological services including flood control and erosion protection, but also key fish and wildlife habitat, clean and filter our water and provide endless opportunities for recreation and business opportunities.”
Eischeid laid out the process by which projects that would impact more than 10 acres of wetlands in the Mat-Su borough would be required to mitigate those permanently affected, following decisions from the Army Corps of Engineers that had been forwarded to the borough. Eischeid also noted that the Assembly has protected 67 miles of stream habitat and 6,200 acres of lake habitat for salmon through culverts.
“The oridaince as written really wouldn’t affect that project or any project I could find whatsoever,” said Assemblyman Jesse Sumner. “I really think there’s a lot of issues that havent been fully considered here. I’m not sure that really we should be adopting something that would’ve just needlessly added paperwork and have had no impact whatsoever and I’m not sure an amendment here at the table would be appropriate either for something of this magnitude.”
Following Sumner’s comments, Assemblyman Tim Hale moved an amendment to add that “permittee responsible mitigation projects shall be within the boundary of the Mat-Su Borough” which passed 4-3.
I think to just kind of say we’re going to trust the Federal Government to do what is best for the Mat-Su Borough, I think that that’s silly. I don’t trust the Federal Government to do what’s best for us and I think that we need to take that kind of thing into our own hands and we need to say if you are going to disturb our wetlands then any mitigation you are required to do needs to be done in our borough.” said Hale.
Assemblyman George McKee argued that the ordinance as written was dishonest and would not protect fish. Assemblyman Rob Yundt II provided statistics on the acreage of the borough, including that there are 4 million acres of wetlands over 11 different variations in the borough itself.
“I can’t support this. I don’t see that it’s actually going to change anything. It’s just going to change the finances on some of these large projects and it’s going to end up being a job killer,” said Yundt.
Sumner suggested that instead of passing the ordinance, the borough should become more involved in commenting on the Army Corps of Engineers process as it occurs.
“All you have to do is look to the Lower 48 to see how many millions of dollars have been spent trying to recreate what was lost, so I don’t think this is a wasted conversation at all in terms of trying to keep something that provides a valuable resource,” said Assemblywoman Stephanie Nowers. “I don’t think the borough is using its own expertise, I think we’re relying on the corps to determine the wetlands and then we’re saying to the developer we’re not taking your land, we’re saying you just can use one of these four approved methods to offset it. So we’re not creating anything or trying to supplant what they do so I guess given the importance these play and that when you have a big project you have big impacts.”
While Yundt voted with Deputy Mayor Tam Boeve, Hale and Nowers in favor of the amendment which passed, he crossed over to vote down the main motion on Ordinance 21-025 with McKee, Sumner, and Mokie Tew. Boeve, Hale and Nowers voted in favor of the ordinance.