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Jet skis divide growing community at small Mat-Su lake

Zaz Hollander

PALMER --  A yearlong push to get jet skis off a lake near Willow that’s home to growing numbers of full-time residents ended this week with a less-restrictive ban on two-stroke motors.

The Mat-Su Assembly on Tuesday night voted 4-3 for a two-stroke ban to go into effect on Crystal Lake in May 2016, as well as a 200-foot no-wake zone along the shore.

More than 70 people own land along the 132-acre lake tucked into birch and spruce about two miles off the Parks Highway north of Nancy Lake State Recreation Area. With more residents has come more recreational use, including personal watercraft.

Given the industry’s move away from problematic two-strokes, the ban is expected to apply mostly to older jet skis but not those sold in the last five years or so.

“This is not banning personal watercraft,” said Assembly member Vern Halter, who proposed the changes. “This is banning the most common jet ski, the stand-up one, the one that’s the noisiest … the one that bothers neighbors the most.”

Some property owners say the ban will be hard to enforce and won't protect the lake’s birds, keep people safe or maintain the peace and quiet the way an outright prohibition on all jet skis would.

Two-thirds of property owners backed a jet ski ban out of 85 percent who responded to a survey last year, resident Phyllis Henderson told the Assembly. Then she asked members how they’d feel if they won by that kind of margin with that kind of turnout yet still lost the election.

“On weekends, up to 28 jet skis come from three lots. They take over the lake, jumping wakes and turning circles,” Henderson said. “Last summer, our dock was broken in half by wave action, and the shore erosion is obvious.”

Rare lake

Crystal Lake is one of just three lakes out of 48 that fall under borough lake management plans that still allow personal watercraft.  The plans, initiated and developed by residents and property owners, govern aspects of lake life such as quiet hours, boat traffic and waterfowl protections.

The others are Big Lake -- aptly named, given its nearly 2,500-acre surface -- and 250-acre Crooked Lake, west of Big Lake. Jet skis are also allowed on busy Wasilla Lake, as well as Cottonwood and Finger lakes, but those lakes don’t fall under the plans.

Mike Bryers, one of Crystal Lake’s newest full-time residents, told the Assembly he makes the long commute to Anchorage just to live on one of the Valley’s few lakes still open to the watercraft.

“We lived in Wasilla for many years,” Bryers said. “We moved to Willow to get away from the cookie-cutter approach.”

Changing the plan

Not everyone sees it that way.

Growing problems with noise and erosion from personal watercraft prompted some Crystal Lake property owners to start the process of amending the lake’s 1996 plan last summer.

They hoped to get jet skis banned altogether. Concerns included threats to waterfowl like loons and ducks, erosion, noise and safety given the small size of the lake and increasing traffic. Two-stroke engines are notorious for oozing unburned oil and gas into the water.

Residents were also mindful of a 16-year-old girl killed in 2012 on Juneau’s Auke Lake when a jet ski-towed inner tube she was riding was hit by another jet ski.

As part of the amendment process, eight residents circulated a petition to ban jet skis and garnered 51 valid signatures, according to a borough summary.

Last winter, supporters outnumbered opponents by 2 to 1 -- the count was 65 to 34 -- in ballots mailed to all property owners and returned by 85 percent of them. Two community meetings in Willow in January and February followed, with property owners as well as members of the Willow Area Community Organization.  

A draft plan with three alternatives emerged in March: ban personal watercraft; establish a no-wake zone 100 feet from shore and add two hours to the existing 10 p.m. to 8 a.m. quiet hours; or take no action.

Before the plan emerged, comments to the borough came in at 125 behind a ban and five against, according to the summary. But afterward, comments showed 66 people favored the ban, 16 favored the less restrictive changes and 79 favored no action at all.

The planning commission debated the issue in May. Members heard nearly four hours of testimony from more than 50 people.

The commission in a 5-2 vote recommended the no-wake zone and expanded quiet hours.

'Fourth of July problem'

That decision still rankled people at Tuesday night’s meeting.

“Why do you have a system to amend lake management plans if the results are just going to be ignored?” asked Luke Martin, who said the majority of the lake’s property owners are being “bullied off the lake” by a minority.

A number of property owners, however, praised the planning commission’s decision as a compromise that allowed both sides to live in harmony.

Mike Marsh, whose family has owned two lots on the lake for 31 years, said he’s been running personal watercraft there since 1990. He bought one for his son when the boy was 9 and currently uses a two-stroke, sit-down model for transportation.

Marsh told the Assembly the rift over watercraft started as a “Fourth of July problem” and was a problem between a few neighbors.

“It escalated from there,” he said. “I don’t see the need for further regulation. The amended plan is a good compromise.”

Since the planning commission decision, another property owner said, a group of watercraft users are “collaborating to make a peaceful Crystal Lake” by idling out slowly from the shore and avoiding one particular bay.

Some in the crowd agreed problems had improved in the last month or so, but not to the point they changed their minds.

Then again, maybe there’s another solution.

Assembly member Steve Colligan, who voted against the ban and the no-wake zone, said he keeps an “enforcement kit” handy for dealing with problem boaters on his home waters of Wasilla Lake. The contents? A flare gun and a laser pointer.