Eagles at the American Bald Eagle Foundation in Haines. (Emily Files)

Eagles at the American Bald Eagle Foundation in Haines.(Emily Files)

A raptor tour permit that has raised public safety concerns from residents was approved by the Skagway Planning Commission Thursday night. Planners rejected the application two years ago, and the tour operator, Alaska Mountain Guides, appealed. Recently, a Superior Court judge in Juneau remanded the decision back to the planning commission, saying the reasons for denial were ‘unclear.’

If all goes as planned, Alaska Mountain Guides hopes to open a raptor viewing center in the Liarsville area of Skagway, also known as the Vonnie Bertha Subdivision. Up to 10 birds from the American Bald Eagle Foundation in Haines would be kept in mews. Busloads of visitors would come to the center each day and take a walking tour, learning about the eagles and other birds.

AMG owner Sean Gaffney pointed out the training and expertise of the Eagle Foundation staff, who would handle the birds.

“It’s a top-end institution and we feel strongly that that type of programming would be a benefit to Skagway and the municipality,” Gaffney said. “And we also feel it would be a benefit to the values of adjacent lands.”

But testimony from residents and planners showed the concerns that existed two years ago are still there. Resident Brandie Bounds pointed to the increase in traffic, noise, and the possibility of attracting wildlife.

“I have kids, my neighbors have kids,” Bounds said. “Is that gonna create more worry for me as a mother and a citizen in Liarsville?”

Planning Chair Orion Hanson voted against the tour before, and he stuck to his objections at Thursday’s meeting. He said raptors in cages could lure wolves, bears, and coyotes to the area.

“I don’t think it does protect public health, safety and welfare as presented,” Hanson said. “Bears can smell stuff from tens of miles away. And that’s honestly my opinion and that’s heartfelt. And if a judge in Juneau doesn’t like that, that’s how I feel.”

Some of the conversation revolved around zoning. The Liarsville area is zoned industrial. Some commissioners wondered about whether that was an appropriate location for such a tour. Commissioner Rocky Outcalt said he didn’t think it was the best area, but there are already a variety of uses there that are not industrial.

“How can you tell somebody that they can’t operate a business? How can you tell someone that they can’t do something?” Outcalt said. “If they jump through all the legal hoops, how can we tell them that you don’t have the same right as the guy next door to do whatever it is you want to do in this free country?”

The commissioners also debated about whether raptor mews counted as kennels, which are allowed in Skagway’s industrial zones. The definition of kennels in Skagway Code reads, in part: ‘a place where domestic animals or birds are kept or bred in numbers greater than six.”

Hanson took that to mean ‘domestic birds,’ which he said does not apply to raptors. Outcalt disagreed.

“So I believe that is a subjugate word, domestic birds as well,” Hanson said.

“It doesn’t actually say that,” Outcalt replied.

“Well, that’s the way I read that,” said Hanson.

“Using the word ‘or’ does not mean that,” said Outcalt.

Newly-appointed planning commissioner Mavis Henricksen tried to put conditions on the permit to mitigate some of the safety concerns. But her first attempt failed to get a second vote.

Henricksen referred to the judge’s decision to remand the permit back to planners. The judge points out AMG owners were willing to comply with conditions like building restrooms and having 24-hour supervision at the site. So, he asked, why the did the commission reject the application instead of putting requirements on the permit? Henricksen said that was what she was trying to do.

“And I think that you’re running into trouble if you’re not trying to offer up a solution,” she said.

At the suggestion of other commissioners, Henricksen amended her motion. She proposed putting three requirements on the permit: a DEC-approved restroom, a high chain-link fence, and a person on-site at all times when birds are present. That motion passed unanimously.

Eagle Foundation Director Cheryl McRoberts says the mews AMG would build in Skagway are comparable to those at the Haines foundation. She says 24-hour supervision is not required at the Haines site.

The commission’s final vote to approve the conditional use permit passed 3-1. Hanson was the only vote opposed. The other commissioner who voted against the permit two years ago, Matt Deach, was not present at the meeting.

The commission still needs to adopt a formal resolution memorializing the decision at its next meeting. AMG owner Gaffney says his company hopes to have the raptor tour in place by next summer.