Petersburg’s Borough Assembly says the state-owned seaplane in town is falling into disrepair.
(Photo by Shelby Herbert/KFSK)

Petersburg’s Assembly is considering whether to request control of a state-owned seaplane dock in need of repair, prompting questions about whether the process for transferring ownership to local authorities is viable.

Scott Newman runs Petersburg Flying Service. You can pick out his plane because of its blue and gold stripes — there’s not a speck of dirt on it.

“I spend an hour every day at the end of the day cleaning the plane and getting it ready for the next day,” said Newman. “It doesn’t matter what you have, a boat, an airplane or a dock. You have to maintain it and if you don’t maintain things in this country, nature’s going to take it back. That’s just the way it is.”

That’s exactly what’s happening to the seaplane float where Newman keeps his vehicle.

“The entire dock is sinking,” said Newman. “I mean, it’s crumbling. It’s mushy. I can see this particular board right here like someone’s going to step on that put their foot all the way through it.”

In addition to the danger underfoot, there’s trouble from above too. Newman said the zinc collars on the dock’s 20-foot pilings haven’t been maintained, so saltwater is eating away at the steel.

Newman sits on the Petersburg Borough Assembly, and the state of the seaplane float was raised at a recent Assembly meeting. Petersburg Borough actually doesn’t own the seaplane float. The Alaska State Department of Transportation owns it, and the Borough said it just isn’t a priority for the state. 

If they won’t fix it, the borough could request that ownership of the seaplane float be transferred from the state to the borough — but that process isn’t straightforward.

Papke’s Landing is a boat dock about 11 miles out of town. It’s used by scores of residents and visitors, especially those coming from Kupreanof Island. Ken Howard is one of them — he’s been relying on this dock to get into town for 20 years. 

“This facility is extremely important to us because it’s our connection to Petersburg,” said Howard. “That connection was first built after World War Two. And it hasn’t fared well down the years. It’s broken in half. Because the float goes to the ground, and the ground is not level, it drops off there.”

All the problems at Papke’s are old news in Petersburg. Howard and many others have been raising it for years, just waiting for the day that someone gets injured on the dock. In February, the Borough Assembly finally requested that Papke’s Landing be transferred from the State to the Borough. 

Now, the focus here is the tidelands and uploads around the dock, owned by the State Department of Natural Resources or DNR. 

In his office in town, Borough Manager Steve Giesbrecht pulls out a list detailing all the steps involved in that process. And fair warning, it’s lengthy.

“So we have a 20-day agency comment period,” said Giesbrecht. “And that goes into the preliminary decision that takes over a year is to use their exact language. There’s a 30-day public notice that has to occur and final findings are drafted. That final findings is then also published again for a 20-day appeal process. We have to have it surveyed and appraised — all that’s combined into a final documentation sent to the borough and then it has to go in front of our assembly.”

All in all, the Department of Natural Resources says this process can take up to four years! Some of its users don’t think Papke’s will even last that long. Now the seaplane float is owned by the Department of Transportation. They say their typical timeline is much faster.

Giesbrecht said, no matter the department, transferring ownership from the state will need to become a smoother process.

“Come to the table, ready to hand me over the deed and say, we’re not going to put you through two years of paperwork,” said Giesbrecht. “It’s ridiculous. If the state is not going to pay for this stuff, then let us do it.”

Because once a property is handed over, the borough is on the hook for repair and maintenance with its own money.  And cash just isn’t flowing into Alaska like it used to.

“When the price of oil was over $100 a barrel, the state had a ton of money,” said Giesbrecht. “[The] price of oil is not over $100 anymore. I mean, we all get used to it. I mean — I got used to it when my parents paid for everything when I lived at home and then it was a bit of a transition when I had to pay for it myself.”

The Assembly here hasn’t reached a decision yet on whether they want to ask for ownership of the seaplane float. Assembly Member Scott Newman says it isn’t about to fall into the ocean, but its condition will only get worse.

“Firve years from now, ten years — especially ten years from now, I think it’ll be much more of an issue,” said Newman. “[It’s] getting old, things are starting to sag.”

Given how long it might take if the Borough does request ownership, they’ll need to get thinking about where they’ll find the money to pay for it.