DATE: February 21, 2001

TO: Planning Commission

FROM: Sylvia A. Kreel, Planner
Community Development Department

FILE NO.: VAR2001-00007

PROPOSAL: Variance request by Juneau International Airport to remove substantial vegetation within 50 feet of Jordan Creek.

 

GENERAL INFORMATION

Applicant: Allan Heese, Airport Manager

Property Owner: CBJ

Property Address: 1873 Shell Simmons Drive Juneau, AK 99801

Legal Description: Airport Terminal

Parcel Code Number: 3-B16-0-100-001-0

Site Size: Approximately 8 acres of airport property would be impacted by the variance.

Zoning: I, Industrial

Utilities: CBJ Water & Sewer

Access: Yandukin Drive and Crest Street.

Existing Land Use: Airport

Surrounding Land Use: North - I, Industrial; Yandukin Drive, fire station and airplane hangars

South – I, Industrial; Airplane hangars, tiedowns and runways

East - I, Industrial; Temsco heliport

West -I, Industrial; Airplane hangars and tiedowns

PROJECT DESCRIPTION

The airport has requested the variance to remove substantial vegetation within 50 feet of Jordan Creek. The variance would allow the airport to remove the spruce, hemlock, cottonwoods and taller alders adjacent to Jordan Creek, where Jordan Creek passes through airport property. There is approximately 2,950 linear feet of Jordan creek associated with this variance request. The airport has presented the following three reasons for removal of the vegetation:

  1. Clear Vision. From the air traffic control tower, the trees currently prohibit clear vision of various taxiways and aircraft operation areas.
  2. Danger to planes in duress. The trees present a danger to planes arriving or departing under duress and which may have strayed form the normal departure and landing areas and altitudes.
  3. Bird attractant. The trees are a bird attractant especially for eagles and herons. The birds create a safety hazard for planes in flight.

All three motives are related to safety concerns as described in greater detail in the applicant’s submittal. The trees would be cut as low to the ground as possible and removed from the site. The trunks and roots located within the dike would be retained to minimize ground disturbance and erosion and maximize bank stability.

Jordan Creek is culverted under Yandukin where it enters the airport property and then culverted again 3 more times, under Crest street, the taxiway and the runway, before it flows into the Mendenhall Wetlands Refuge. The trees which the applicant would like to remove are located in the area east and west of Crest Street. The floodplain for this portion of the stream is contained within a dike. (See Site Plan) West of Crest Street, the creek loops, creating a triangular boggy area. While the airport is requesting to cut the spruce, hemlock, cottonwood and taller alders in this area, there are willows and smaller variety alder within the triangular area which will be retained. The vegetation retained will be trimmed by hand tools to a height of approximately 6 feet.

While most of the trees west of Crest Street are within the dike, the majority of the trees east of Crest Street are located on top of or on the outer side of the dike. Those located outside the dike provide less benefit to the stream than do those trees within the dike.

The applicant has noted that the trees will be felled away from the stream and removed by a backhoe. Where possible, the backhoe will operate from outside of the dike. In areas where that is not possible, downed trees and construction matting will be placed on the ground beneath heavy equipment in order to minimize the ground disturbance. The existing willows adjacent to the creek, west of Crest Street will be retained, to the extent possible. The lower alders will be retained as well. As part of this request, the applicant intends to do annual maintenance on the area. This will include removal of any new tree saplings and trimming of the alder and willows.

Staff has discussed the possibility of topping the trees with the airport, rather than removal. Dave Lendrum, Landscape Alaska, indicated that up to 50 percent of a spruce tree could be cut without killing the tree, if done properly. While topping would, to a large degree solve the visibility issue for a number of years, it would not necessarily remove the bird attractant or the hazard to planes in duress.

The Wetlands Review Board visited the site on February 1, 2001 and discussed the variance with airport administration at a meeting on February 15, 2001. A quorum was not present at either meeting. The board discussed several ways to mitigate impacts, including planting willows adjacent to the stream to replace some of the functions lost by the tree removal, placing logs in the stream to create area for fish and rechannelizing the stream in order to create overhanging banks and faster moving water. Placing logs in the streams and rechannelizinging the stream were not acceptable to the airport staff, as they would require additional permits from the US Army Corps of Engineers and Fish and Game. Additionally, they presented concerns regarding flooding and cost.

CDD staff finds enhancing the stream by planting willows to be the best option as it specifically replaces some of the functions which will be lost by the tree removal.

The airport administration has expressed concern with planting willows regarding the cost, the provision of cover for wildlife and difficulty in hazing birds. However, the administration acknowledges the environmental sensitivity of the stream and the purpose of the setback, and importance of the trees. CDD staff finds that the addition of the willows are necessary to provide some of the functions lost by the trees. Comments from Fish and Game and the Wetland Review Board indicate that the stream will be adversely affected by the tree removal, which further supports the addition of the willows.

Conversations with Dave Lendrum, Landscape Alaska has provided some guidance as to how the willows should be planted. Mr. Lendrum recommended that shoots, 1 to 2 inches in diameter, 3 to 4 feet long be planted 6 to 10 feet apart. The airport wishes to maintain the height of the willows below the top of the dike. As such, the recommended condition only requires the willows be planted within 5 feet of the top of the dike. There may be sufficient willows on the airport property from which to take shoots.

BACKGROUND

CBJ Section 49.70.310(a)(5) prohibits development within fifty feet of the banks of designated stream corridors. The definition of development includes the removal of significant vegetative cover.

The stream side setback is required from anadroumous fish streams in order to ensure that water quality and habitat are maintained. Trees in particular provide streams with nutrients from woody debris falling into the stream, shade for temperature control in both summer and winter months, cover for fish, bank stability, which controls erosion and insects for fish food.

The airport has wanted to remove the trees for several years now. As the trees get taller with each year, the visibility from the control tower gets worse. During a recent FAA certification inspection of JIA, the inspector strongly recommended the removal of the trees for safety reasons. (Letter attached)

The submittal notes several recent incidences where the trees possibly compromised safety at the airport. In September 2000, a plane in duress hit one of the spruce trees, before hitting a hangar building. While there is no conclusive evidence that the pilot could have recovered, had the tree not been there, it is a possibility. Additionally, over the last three years there have been two incidents where herons flying between the Mendenhall Wetlands Refuge and the trees along Jordan Creek have flown into airplanes, causing damage to the planes and the potential for fatalities. Additionally, the airport has noted that limited visibility from the tower has in the past created difficulties in directing traffic.

ANALYSIS

Variance Requirements

Under CBJ'49.20.250 where hardship and practical difficulties result from an extraordinary situation or unique physical feature affecting only a specific parcel of property or structures lawfully existing thereon and render it difficult to carry out the provisions of Title 49, the Board of Adjustment may grant a variance in harmony with the general purpose and intent of Title 49. A variance may vary any requirement or regulation of Title 49 concerning dimensional and other design standards, but not those concerning the use of land or structures, housing density, lot coverage, or those establishing construction standards. A variance may be granted after the prescribed hearing and after the Board of Adjustment has determined:

1. That the relaxation applied for or a lesser relaxation specified by the Board of Adjustment would give substantial relief to the owner of the property involved and be more consistent with justice to other property owners.

The variance applied for will give substantial relief to the airport through improved visibility, reduced risk of bird strikes and a reduction in hazards presented to planes in duress. Topping was considered as a lesser relaxation. However, it does not meet all of the airport’s objectives. Consideration for safety is a priority afforded to other property owners. Staff finds that the variance requested would be consistent with this justice afforded other property owners.

Staff finds that this criterion is met.

2. That relief can be granted in such a fashion that the intent of this title will be observed and the public safety and welfare be preserved.

The intent of Title 49 is established in Section 49.15.100 Purpose and Intent. Those sections, which are applicable to the requested variance, are as follows:

    1. To achieve the goals and objectives and implement the policies of the Juneau Comprehensive Plan and the coastal management program;
    2. To ensure that future growth and development in the city and borough is in accord with the values of its residents;

(4) To ensure that future growth is of the appropriate type, design and location, and is served by a proper range of public services and facilities such as water, sewage, and electrical distribution systems, transportation, schools, parks and other public requirements, and in general to promote public health safety and general welfare.

The community values both fish habitat and safety. In this instance, these values have competing interests. However, staff finds that with the provision of the willows, both values can be addressed.

Safe air travel is necessary for the provision of transportation, which is necessary for future growth. Staff finds that the variance requested will enhance public safety and welfare.

Staff finds that this criterion is met.

  1. That the authorization of the variance will not injure nearby property.
  2. There is no evidence to suggest that the requested variance will injure nearby property.

    Staff finds that this criterion is met.

  3. That the variance does not authorize uses not allowed in the district involved.

The subject property is zoned Industrial. The Table of Permissible Uses, 49.25.300, includes airports as an allowable use in the Industrial zoning district. This variance will not expand the capacity or physical structures of the airport in any way.

Staff finds that this criterion is met.

5. That compliance with the existing standards would:

(A) Unreasonably prevent the owner from using the property for a permissible principal use;

No. The airport has been in existence on this site for many years. Denial of the variance requested would not prevent the airport from continuing. However, if safety were sufficiently compromised, it is possible that FAA funding would be lost.

    1. Unreasonably prevent the owner from using the property in a manner which is consistent as to scale, amenities, appearance or features, with existing development in the neighborhood of the subject property;

No. Compliance would not prevent CBJ from using the site in a manner, which is consistent with other development in the area.

(C) Be unnecessarily burdensome because unique physical features of the property render compliance with the standards unreasonably expensive;

Yes. By nature, airports are unique uses. They have safety and other issues unlike any other uses found in the community. Compliance with the regulations would ultimately limit visibility and safety at the airport to a point where it is no longer acceptable. At that point, the airport would have to be moved, if compliance were required. Due to the expense of development, plus the investment in existing infrastructure, a move would be unreasonably expensive.

Additionally, should an accident occur which is at all related to the trees, due to lack of visibility, or a bird strike or due to a plane in duress hitting a tree, the price paid, in both monetary terms and in human life, would be unreasonably burdensome.

or

(D) Because of pre-existing nonconforming conditions on the subject parcel the grant of the variance would not result in a net decrease in overall compliance with the Land Use Code, CBJ Title 49, or the Building Code, CBJ Title 19, or both.

No. Compliance would not result in a net decrease in compliance with the Land Use Code, CBJ Title 49.

Sub-criteria C can be met. As such, staff finds that criterion 5 is met.

6. That a grant of the variance would result in more benefits than detriments to the neighborhood.

The airport is a community asset, which is highly depended upon for community growth, commerce and transportation. The loss of the trees in the riparian area would be a detriment to Jordan Creek. However, staff finds that the maintenance of safety at the airport is a benefit which outweighs the detriment caused to Jordan Creek. The planting of willows will help minimize the detriment by providing some shade and cover.

Staff finds that this criterion is met.

JUNEAU COASTAL MANAGEMENT PROGRAM

CBJ49.70.950 (f) requires that structures and foundations located adjacent to cataloged anadromous streams, of which Jordan Creek is one "…shall have a fifty-foot setback from each side of the stream, where feasible and prudent,…The setback shall be vegetated or revegetated…"

Feasible and prudent is defined within the JCMP to mean, "consistent with sound engineering practice and not causing environmental, social or economic problems which outweigh the public benefit…"

In this instance, the applicant is not proposing any structures within the setback. The airport has agreed to revegatate the setback with willows in order to replace some of the functions of the trees.

Additionally, the JCMP sections 49.70.950(a), (b), (c) and (d) apply. The code specifically states:

49.70.950 HABITAT.

(a) Habitats in the coastal area which are subject to the Alaska Coastal Management Program include (7) Rivers, streams and lakes

(b)The habitats contained in subsection (a) of this section shall be managed so as to maintain or enhance the biological, physical and chemical characteristics of the habitat which contribute to its capacity to support living resources.

(c)(7) Rivers streams and lakes shall be managed so as to protect natural vegetation, water quality, important fish or wildlife habitat and natural waterflow.

(d)Uses and activities in the coastal area which will not conform to the standards contained in subsections (b) and (c) of this section may be allowed if the following standards are met:

    1. There is a significant public need for the proposed use or activity;
    2. There is not feasible and prudent alternative to meet the public need for the proposed use or activity which would conform to the standards contained in subsections (b) and (c) of this section; and
    3. All feasible and prudent steps to maximize conformance with the standards contained in subsections (b) and (c) of this section will be taken.  

The proposed tree removal will not meet the requirements of 49.70.950 (c)(7). However, a finding of significant public need can be made. Without the tree removal public safety is compromised. There is no feasible and prudent alternative to meet the public need for safety. Topping the trees was considered. While topping would reduce the safety issue associated with visibility it would not eliminate the concern over planes in duress, nor bird habitat. Moving the airport would be an enormous undertaking and is not considered feasible and prudent at this time. CDD staff finds that the planting of the willows will help replace some of the functions lost by the tree removal and that the willows are necessary in order to meet all feasible and prudent steps, as required by 49.70.950(d)(3), to maximize conformance with the standards contained in subsections (b) and (c) of the habitat section.

49.70.950(e) Each development which adjoins a river or stream which has been degraded by previous human activity shall, as part of its development plan, include a provisions for rehabilitation of the stream or river, and shall be approved by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Such provisions shall be limited to removal of debris, removal of abandoned machinery and vehicles, grading and stabilization of banks and related cleanup activities, and shall include preservation or restoration of riparian vegetation. Restoration shall not be required beyond that needed to return the area to natural appearance and function.

During recent site visits, there was no presence of debris, abandoned machinery or vehicles on the site. As the airport property is secured from public access, it is unlikely that the presence of trash in Jordan Creek will ever be a significant problem on the airport property. However, a condition has been recommended to address possible trash which does pass into this section of Jordan Creek. The planting of the willows will meet the requirement for restoration of riparian vegetation.  

FINDINGS

CBJ'49.20.240, Board of Adjustment Action, states that the Board of Adjustment shall hear all variance requests and shall either approve, conditionally approve, modify or deny the request based on the criteria in CBJ'49.20.250.

Under CBJ'49.20.220, Scheduling and Fee, the Community Development Department director makes the following determination:

1. Is the application for the requested variance complete?

Yes. We find the application contains the information necessary to conduct a full review of the proposed operations. The application submittal by the applicant, including the appropriate fees, substantially conform to the requirements of CBJ code Chapters 49.15. Additionally, notice was provided in the Juneau Empire under Your Municipality which ran on February 16, 2001. A notice was mailed to owners of record of all property within 500 feet of the subject property.

Under CBJ'49.70.900 (b)(3), General Provisions, the director makes the following Juneau Coastal Management Program consistency determination:

  1. Will the proposed development comply with the Juneau Coastal Management Program?
  2. Yes. Subject to conditions, the proposal will comply with the Juneau Coastal Management Program.

  3. Does the variance as requested, meet the criteria of Section 49.20.250 Grounds for

Variances?

Yes. Subject to conditions the variance meets the criteria of section 49.20.250.

RECOMMENDATION

Variances are intended for situations where there are unique physical features or extraordinary situations. The airport certainly presents such a situation. The space, safety and visibility requirements associated with the operation of an airport are different from all other uses.

Staff recommends that the Board of Adjustment adopt the director’s analysis and findings and determine that criteria 1-6 found in Section 49.20.250 are met and grant the variance as requested. This variance will allow the removal of trees within the 50-foot setback of Jordan Creek and future trimming of vegetation within the 50-foot setback to a height of 6 feet. This recommendation is made subject to the following conditions:

  1. Willows shall be planted within the area between Ordinary High Water and to within 5
  2. feet of the top of the dikes under supervision of a trained horticulturist or landscaper. The willow shoots used shall be at a minimum, 1 inch in diameter, 3 feet long and planted 6 to 10 feet apart. Existing willows which are retained may be used instead of planting new shoots. The planting shall be completed within 18 months of cutting the trees.

  3. No stumps within the dike shall be removed.
  4. The trees shall be felled away from the stream and to the extent feasible, removal of the trees shall be done by equipment stationed outside of the dike. Logs or construction matting shall be used under any heavy equipment used within the dike in order to minimize ground disturbance.
  5. Jordan Creek shall be kept free of garbage where it runs through airport property.
  6. Future trimming of vegetation, subsequent to the tree removal, shall be done by hand
    tools so as to not cause erosion or significant ground disturbance.
  7. The trees shall be felled and removed under supervision of CBJ Engineering Department
    in order to ensure that they are felled away form the stream and removed in a manner which causes the least ground disturbance.