The state’s Local Boundary Commission has signed off on a new Petersburg borough, with a change to the northern boundary near Juneau. The Commission voted 4-1 Friday to put the proposed Petersburg borough to a public vote of local residents sometime later this year.
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After three days of public testimony and arguments from supporters and opponents of the plan, the a majority of the commission voted that Petersburg’s borough met state standards.
“Many are here because they enjoy the natural beauty, the relatively sparse population of the area, the fish and game resources, the ability to make a living, even if that living is heavily dependent on subsistence, a subsistence lifestyle,” said commissioner Larry Semmens of Soldotna. “The economy of the area is driven largely by commercial fishing.”
Under the proposal from Petersburg, the city government would dissolve and become a new borough government with taxing authority and responsibility for education and planning services. As originially proposed, the Petersburg borough would cover more than 43-hundred square miles of land and water around Mitkof and Kupreanof islands along with a portion of the mainland in central Southeast. Borough supporters argue the new government would give locals a greater say in development in the area and say the city is already providing services to remote residents. The borough would incorporate several hundred residents who live outside of Petersburg city limits, including some who live in remote homesteads on Kupreanof Island and the mainland.
Commissioner Lavell Wilson of Tok was the only opposition vote. He did not think the people of the area had common interests. “I can’t see where they have a lot in common, people that live way out there with the people that live in town,” Wilson said. “The people that live in town are mostly interested in the growth of the city and the well-being, and the people out there can care less, really. They basically wanna live their lifestyle. So I would have to disagree on that.”
The decision followed three days of testimony from the public, neighboring municipalities, Native corporations and tribal governments. Borough opponents outside the city cited a variety of concerns. Some are worried about too little representation and too much government and potential new rules or regulations. Others argued the creation of a borough government would mean no benefits or services for them. Both Juneau to the north and Kake to the west objected to Petersburg’s proposed boundaries. Juneau submitted a competing petition for roughly half the territory within Petersburg’s proposal.
Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho was disappointed but said he was not surprised by the decision. “Juneau had moved to consolidate the Juneau petition with the Petersburg petition,” Botelho said. “And at the point that the commission chose to keep them on separate tracks, the fact that the Petersburg petition was moving forward on its own I think made Juneau’s borough even more uphill because having the hearing in Petersburg and of course the numbers of citizens who came out and testified and I think made a very strong case for Petersburg.”
The commission voted to amend Petersburg’s original proposal and followed recommendations of LBC staff, excluding Tracy Arm and the Whiting River in the northeast corner of the area proposed for incorporation. Juneau is seeking to annex land as far south as Cape Fanshaw and that petition is still before the LBC. Botelho says the Juneau assembly will have to discuss its options at an upcoming meeting.
The LBC vote does not make the Petersburg borough a done deal. It’ll still take a vote of the majority of residents in the area to approve the new government. Petersburg city councilor Don Koenigs had that thought in mind following the commission’s decision. “Now we in the community will have an opportunity to continue the discussion, to see if whether or not we really wanna form the borough, who would, hopefully, along with that discussion individuals within the community that would step up to the plate and represent that borough, should it be ratified by the voters,” Koenigs said.
Mail out voting will be conducted by the state Division of Elections, sometime in the fall.