Two Southeast communities are arguing in court briefings over the fairness of Petersburg’s borough formation last year. Juneau and Petersburg sought some of the same land during the formation, and the state’s local boundary commission decided much of it would be in the new Petersburg borough. Attorneys for the Capital City say the commission didn’t listen to much of its evidence, and a decision on the case could be out in the next few months.

A snapshot of a section of Tracy Arm. Photo courtesy of ShoreZone.

The case concerns about two thousand square miles of land, extending from the southern border of Juneau’s borough south through about half of the borough of Petersburg.
Juneau petitioned to annex the land in November of 2011. However, the land became part of Petersburg’s newly created borough following a decision by Alaska’s Local Boundary Commission and vote by Petersburg last year.

Amy Mead is Juneau’s attorney for the case. She says Juneau is appealing the commission’s ruling on Petersburg’s borough.

“There was a whole world of evidence in our annexation petition that we could not rely on or not discuss,” Mead says. “There was evidence that we wanted to use as demonstrative aids that we were told were off limits. The only thing that the LBC was going to consider was the Petersburg briefing on its own.”

Mead says her argument comes from a mandate in the constitution that boroughs should, quote, “embrace an area and population with common interests to the maximum degree possible.” And in Juneau’s view, it fits that “maximum degree possible” description better than Petersburg does.

In their brief, attorneys for Juneau say the capital has greater cultural ties to the area than Petersburg does – cultural ties that the commission didn’t get to hear about. They say Juneau’s residents own more property in the area. They hunt more. They use the area as a tourism destination. And Juneau says it can serve the people there better. Mead says that if the commission would have considered that, the ruling could have turned out much differently.

“There was very little evidence presented by Petersburg as to its claims to that particular area,” Mead says. “And in reading the staff’s reports – the preliminary report and the final report and the LBC’s final position, there’s very little consideration for the conditions to that area.”

However, the Local Boundary Commission argues that it did look at Juneau’s evidence. In its brief, the commission said, “Just because the commissioners didn’t agree with [Juneau]’s position doesn’t mean the commissioners didn’t give the issues a hard look or consider [Juneau]’s concerns in a reasoned decision making process.”

The commission pointed to a few examples of that in its brief. One of those examples was a decision it made on an unincorporated area near Juneau called Tracy Arm. During the borough formation process, Petersburg tried to claim the area as part of its new borough. But the Capital City argued that it had stronger cultural and economic ties to Tracy Arm. The commission agreed and left the area unincorporated.

But for Petersburg’s lawyers, they say the case might not just affect borough boundaries.

Steve Giesbrecht is Petersburg’s borough manager. His concern is that if Juneau does win its appeal, the new boundary lines could change. And because voters didn’t vote on those lines, it could possibly invalidate Petersburg’s status as a borough.

“We’ve done a lot of work to move down that road, and we’re very concerned that if, in fact, Juneau was to win their case, it would either invalidate the election or that, in good faith, we would need to re-do the election,” Giesbrecht says. “And that’d be a big deal. For example, it could potentially fail. And then all the time, money and organization that’d be put into it would potentially be lost.”

In its court filings, Petersburg says that it’s already put many administrative structures in place as a borough. So Juneau winning the appeal could be, quote, “far-reaching, disruptive, confusing, and chaotic.” Attorneys for the borough says there may need to be a new petition process. New signatures. New meetings. New elections. It could take months, or even years.

Ultimately, Giesbrecht says that the consequences of the case lie in the hands of the court, which will decide on the new borough’s status when it rules on the appeal. However, even with those dangers floating around, Giesbrecht isn’t too worried. He takes comfort in the fact that the local boundary commission has never lost a case.

“So I think it’s really apparent that the boundary commission heard Juneau, listened to Juneau, and made adjustments based on their testimony, but ruled in Petersburg’s favor outside of the Tracy Arm adjustment,” Giesbrecht says. “So I think our case is pretty good.”

There are still a few legal hurdles to overcome before the case is decided. Juneau needs to submit its own response to Petersburg’s case briefing. Then there could be an oral argument. After that, the court needs to review the documents and make a ruling. Lawyers on both sides expect the decision will be handed down within the next few months. And as for Juneau’s annexation petition, that’s been put on hold until after the case is decided.