Legislation that would boost the amount of the Petersburg borough’s state land grant moved out of committees in both the Alaska House and Senate this week. Supporters of those bills are making the case that additional state land would help make the new borough more self-sufficient.
House bill 85 and senate bill 28 would grant Petersburg a total of 14,666 acres of state land in the borough. As part of the process of borough formation, Petersburg is entitled to 1,439 acres under state law but is asking for more.

Sitka Democrat Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins sponsored the House bill and testified for it in front of the House community and regional affairs committee this month. “Because of sort of idiosyncrasies with the land base from which the Petersburg borough is allowed to select, there’s a pretty minimal amount of acreage that is available for selection per the formula might be the best way to describe it,” Kreiss-Tomkins told the committee. “And so this piece of legislation sort of recalibrates the acreage that Petersburg borough is able to select to the historic norm that newly formed boroughs in the past in Alaska have been able to select.”

Portions of this map in dark blue are state lands that could be selected by the Petersburg borough.

Portions of this map in dark blue are state lands that could be selected by the Petersburg borough.

Petersburg became a borough and dissolved its city government in 2013. Within the new municipality over 96 percent of land is Tongass National Forest land. 1.73 percent is owned by Goldbelt, Juneau’s urban Native Corporation and 1.34 percent is owned by the state. The Alaska Mental Health Trust and University have been granted another four tenths of a percent. Only three tenths of a percent is in private ownership. That’s the land that Petersburg collects property taxes on. And just four hundredths of a percent is owned by the local government.

“The Petersburg borough would like the opportunity to move some of these lands into private ownership and add them into our tax base as residential or commercial developments,” said Liz Cabrera, the borough’s community development director. “We would like the opportunity to secure new sources of rock for construction and maintenance of our roads and other projects and we’d like the opportunity to use some of our land to address the requirements of the Army Corps of Engineers compensatory mitigation rule, which affects nearly every new development project within the borough. We’d like to do that by establishing a community wetlands mitigation bank. This would directly benefit residents by expediting the process of obtaining a wetlands permit for new development projects.”

Putting down a rock pad foundation on muskeg in Southeast requires a set-aside of undeveloped wetlands somewhere else. The borough hopes to help private land owners meet this requirement by offering mitigation lands from the state land grant.

Sutton Republican House committee member George Rauscher wondered if the request from Petersburg would prompt other municipalities to seek additional acreage.

“From a historical standpoint, when Wrangell asked for additional entitlement, Haines came along and requested that their entitlement be expanded as part of that same piece of legislation,” responded Marty Parsons, deputy director of the state’s Division of Mining, Land and Water. “It would not be outside the realm of possibility that other boroughs would decide that they would like to increase their entitlement through this process.”

15 of the other 18 boroughs have received land grants through the legislative process. Haines and Wrangell were the most recent in 2010.

The bill’s sponsor Kreiss-Tomkins was asked whether the additional land would help the borough meet its goals of providing local services. He thought it would.

“I think a lot of municipalities and local governments in Alaska see the writing on the wall that state support is diminishing, certainly already had diminished to some extent and that they’re interested in sort of pivoting as much as possible towards self-sufficiency to local economic development and to whether it’s supporting the school district or a greater cost-share of running the local jail, they wanna sort of make ends meet and drive their local economies as much as possible,” Kreiss-Tomkins said.

The house bill was moved out of community and regional affairs and sent on to the finance committee for another hearing. The same day, the senate bill was moved out of the senate’s community and regional affairs committee and referred to the rules committee.

The state’s Department of Natural Resources values the full 14,666 acres that Petersburg is seeking at $5,375 an acre or a total of more than 78 million dollars. Taking out the entitlement the borough already is allowed the additional land Petersburg wants is valued at more than 68 million dollars.