Fishing boats in the Haines small boat harbor. (Jillian Rogers)

Fishing boats in the Haines small boat harbor. (Jillian Rogers)

Amid controversy over the small boat harbor expansion, the Haines Planning Commission last week voted unanimously in favor of an ordinance that would give them more oversight in future borough projects.

The vote came after hours of discussion about three appeals of the permitting process for the first phase of the Portage Cove Harbor Expansion Project. During that part of the meeting, conversation broadened to include the role of the planning commission and public process throughout the project. Here’s commissioner Heather Lende.

“We’ve just spent three hours debating a project that everyone assured us it’s all fine, don’t worry, the public process – but it hasn’t been,” said Lende. “And so people are kind of suspect right now. And they want to make sure that when stuff happens there’s a review so that we’re not caught late.”

Commissioner Brenda Josephson shared similar frustrations.

“Whenever there was an opportunity to view it one way or another, it was always erred in let’s do it in the borough office, rather than let’s do it in the public,” said Josephson. “And I find it frustrating that consistently that was the choice that was given, and that was made when the planning commission is the planning body.”

These comments reflect a bigger argument that has shadowed the project for some time – that the planning commission and the public were not involved in this project as early as they should have been. But as chair Rob Goldberg reminded the commission, legally the borough did nothing wrong.

“I think that the planning commission should have been involved earlier, but at the same time I don’t think there was a violation of code,” said Goldberg. “Because the current code just says it has to come to us. It doesn’t say when or at what stage of development.”

Now, they’re trying to change that with new code that would ensure the commission is involved earlier for significant projects. Goldberg worked with Borough Public Facilities Director Brad Ryan and Borough Manager Bill Seward to draft the wording. At Ryan’s suggestion, it said only projects over $100,000 would need to come before the group. His concern was that the commission could end up slowing down smaller projects like routine maintenance. That caused a big hold-up in the discussion. Here’s Josephson.

“I disagree with adding a value of over $100,000,” said Josephson. “It could be a porta potty they’re putting in at 3rd and Main. I think that’s something we should be looking at.”

But others, like commissioner Donnie Turner, agreed the commission shouldn’t have to look at every little project.

“If you’re going to have everything that happens in the borough.” said Turner. “If Andis is replacing a door, we’re going to have to see a conceptual design?”

And Borough Assemblywoman Diana Lapham argued the planners were trying to take their role too far, getting in the way of everyday operations.

“You are totally effectively shutting down this borough because you feel everything’s gotta be run through the planning and zoning,” said Lapham.

Public Facilities Director Brad Ryan reiterated his concerns.

“I can just imagine that Will’s going to build a shed designed as a public workshop to store some stuff in, we’ve already talked about it,” said Ryan. “It’s like a lean-to shed. Is that going to come to you?”

“It should, absolutely,” said Josephson. She advocated throughout the discussion for more planning commission oversight. But Goldberg pushed back.

“You cannot account for every possible thing that might happen,” said Goldberg. “It just is not possible to write code that way. You’d end up with a code that was so convoluted. You cannot take into account every possible thing that might happen. Especially, you can’t attribute motive to people and assume that something nefarious is going to happen. That really – I don’t like that.”

In the end, with suggestions from Haines Borough Attorney Patrick Munson, the commission agreed they should review and report to the borough assembly regarding the location, design, construction, demolition or disposition of every public building, facility, collector or arterial street, park, green belt, playground or other facility. They agreed to exempt routine maintenance from the requirement.

The last part of the ordinance says plans for the construction of new borough facilities with a value over $100,000 will go to the commission for review at a public hearing at the conceptual stage of the design. Then, they’ll decide whether additional public hearings and design review are required at different stages of the design process.

The commission voted unanimously to recommend the borough assembly adopt the draft ordinance.