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Movement afoot to resurrect parts of 'dead' land bill

JUNEAU -- A Juneau legislator is looking for support to revive parts of the infamous House Bill 77 (PDF) and put it in another bill so a local bible camp can trade its land for state land.

But opponents suggest that the changes would create a "Frankenbill" out of the other bill, a popular Senate measure designed to help business owners obtain the land under their buildings. They say the proposed changes, by Rep. Cathy Munoz, R-Juneau, would appear to allow developers to obtain state land for less than fair market value and with minimal public notice.

Former Senate President Rick Halford, one of the driving forces in killing House Bill 77, a massive pro-development measure, said he can't tell if Munoz's effort to revive some less controversial components will result in actual legislation, or even which parts of House Bill 77 are under consideration for inclusion. Only two weeks ago, Sen. Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, a supporter of House Bill 77 and Resources Committee chair, said she was killing it because it had become too divisive.

Stopped in a Capitol hall Thursday, Munoz said she was asking around to see if "non-controversial" parts of House Bill 77 could be incorporated into Senate Bill 106, which gives building owners on leased state land the first right of purchase.

More than half the Senate were co-sponsors of the building-owner bill, a simple measure that adds one subsection to existing law and deletes a sentence from another subsection. It passed the Senate 18-0 March 21 and is now in the House Rules Committee, where last minute changes can be made to bills, especially late in the session.

By contrast, the last version of House Bill 77 was 24 pages. It couldn't be read without a statute book because of all the laws it repealed, which it listed only by number.

'GENERAL PERMITS' AND WATER RIGHTS

The main controversies of House Bill 77 involved water rights, permitting, public notice and new restrictions on the right to appeal state land-use decisions. The bill rescinded the long-held right of individual Alaskans or groups to reserve water in streams for fish, and it allowed the use of "general permits" on state land to authorize activity without public notice.

The bill contained many other provisions, some of them sought by the Division of Natural Resources to clean up confusing or obsolete laws.

A draft bill circulated by Munoz's office has been the subject of anxious emails by environmental organizations and other opponents over the last couple days, even without the introduction of a formal revision.

"I don't know if it exists or not," Halford said of a revised bill. "The thing about zombies, though, you don't know whether they're real or fake, so you've got to worry about them."

The draft measure would make it easier for the owner of private land to exchange it for state land, even if the swapped parcels are not of equal value. Munoz said she has in mind a 12-year effort by Echo Ranch Bible Camp to get rid of the meadow that contains the unofficial hiking trail into Point Bridget State Park north of Juneau. The camp would like to trade for other state park land so the park owns the park access.

Sen. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, had introduced the cabin measure, and he said Thursday that he didn't believe Munoz's amendments would be controversial.

"This one's not a hijacking," Meyer said, recalling his complaint two weeks ago to a House Rules Committee effort to amend another popular bill of his with a section that would allow non-Alaskans to be appointed to the state gas line board. After his objections, House Speaker Mike Chenault apologized and focused his efforts in new legislation.

Lisa Weissler of Juneau, a retired assistant attorney general who submitted a written objection to the land-swap provision when it was part of House Bill 77, said the only reason that section escaped heavy controversy was because the water rights and permitting sections offended critics more.

She said the land trade section "was much too broad" to solve the relatively minor problem with the Bible camp.

"They're acting like it's not a big deal when, yeah, it is," Weissler said. "It's typical of the whole bill, where there might be some small specific problem here or there, but they're trying to solve it with this sweeping language."

Weissler said legal issues and confusing language make her suspicious, especially given the history of House Bill 77 and the lack of time remaining in the session -- no more than three days -- to properly examine the land-exchange section.

"I scratch my head and say, 'what does that mean, why is it in there?' You can't help but think they're trying to get to something bigger, that there's some other issue out there that we should be worried about," Weissler said.

Alaska Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Joe Balash said he was working with Munoz to salvage the land-swap legislation. He said it's designed to replace a "fairly detailed and cumbersome set of statutes that make these sorts of exchanges very difficult to achieve."

The Parnell administration has no intent to use the law to sneak through big development projects, he said. Most of the trades would probably be with Native corporations to establish clean boundary lines between state and Native lands, he said.

But Halford, the former state senator, said the draft amendment he's seen appears to be designed to reduce public involvement.

"That is part of what they've been trying to get rid of all along, and that is public notice and public participation," Halford said. "The democratic process requires you to listen to your critics, and there are those who find that egregious."

The current land exchange system came about "from years and years of compromises" that began with trades in the 1970s that were not in the public interest, Halford said.

Reach Richard Mauer at rmauer@adn.com or (907) 500-7388.


By RICHARD MAUER
rmauer@adn.com