DATE:      June 5, 2001
TO:           Planning Commission
FROM:    Teri Camery, Planner
                 Community Development Department
FILE NO.: VAR2001-00016

PROPOSAL: A variance to construct a trail in the Eagle Beach State Recreation Area within the 50- foot riparian setback.

GENERAL INFORMATION

Applicant: State of Alaska Department of Transportation 

Property Owner: State of Alaska Department of Natural Resources, State Parks

Property Address: 28-Mile Glacier Highway 

Legal Description: T 39 S,R 64 E SEC 3 L 1

Parcel Code: 3-B44-0-400-001-0

Site Size: 25 Acres, 4000 feet of trail

Zoning: RR – Rural Reserve

Utilities: none currently, on-site water and toilets to be installed

Access: Glacier Highway

Existing Land Use: recreation area

Surrounding Land Use:  North – Methodist Camp
                                    South – CBJ vacant land
                                    East - Eagle River
                                    West - Eagle River

PROJECT DESCRIPTION

The applicant seeks a variance to construct approximately 4,000 feet of new or improved trail in the Eagle Beach State Recreation Area along the edge of Eagle River around an abandoned gravel pit. Most sections of the proposed trail are within the 50-foot riparian setback and fall within 25-35 feet of the ordinary high water mark of the river. CBJ Code §49.70.310 (4) prohibits development within 50 feet of the banks of designated stream corridors, therefore the trail requires approval of a variance prior to construction.

BACKGROUND

This variance request is in conjunction with CSP2001-00005, a state project review of the Eagle State Recreation Area Improvement Project. The project enhances recreation opportunities in the area by improving the parking and day use areas, adding picnic areas, shelters, permanent toilets, interpretative signs, new trails including accessible trails, and a year-round caretakers cabin to monitor use of the area. The applicant has agreed to move the two day use areas outside of the 50 foot riparian setback, therefore that development is not being reviewed as part of the variance analysis. The project has received extensive public and agency review since initial meetings were held in 1998 (Attachment D).

ANALYSIS

The trail under review leads from the primary day use area east across Saturday Creek and around the bend in the river around an old gravel pit (Attachment A and B, Path A and B). This trail will be paved and accessible, constructed at six feet wide with two feet of clearing on both sides, until it meets the second walk-in day use area, which is also designed for accessible use. After the day use area, the trail will be ten feet wide with five feet of clearing on either side as it follows the length of the river until it again meets Glacier Highway. This trail is wider but constructed of crushed aggregate, not paved, specifically to accommodate cross-country skiers.

After Saturday Creek, approximately 700 feet of the trail will be constructed on an existing roadbed that was built in the early 1970s to service the gravel pit. The road closely follows the river. CBJ staff measured the road and proposed trail at 25-30 feet from ordinary high water at several points (see photo, Attachment C). Within that 25-foot setback, trees and vegetation are quite thick and lush, and rip-rap protects the riverbank in many areas. During the May 24th site visit with CBJ, Alaska Department of Fish & Game biologist Ben Kirkpatrick studied the area and considered the riverbank and vegetation stable, despite the minimal setback.

Because the area is already impacted and stable, staff sees no significant harm in trail construction here and no significant benefit of moving the trail farther away when a road is already in place. However existing vegetation on the narrow strip facing the river must be preserved. Staff will recommend a condition of preserving existing riparian vegetation.

When the proposed trail leaves the old roadbed, it reaches the second day use area. After the second day use area the trail follows a worn path along a dike, which was constructed in the 1970s to protect the gravel pit. The trail is well outside the 50-foot setback in this area.

At one point the dike has been damaged and filled in by heavy spruce. Here the trail turns in toward the gravel pit toward an area, which will be cleared of rock. An entirely new trail will be constructed in this area, in conjunction with repair of the dike. Staff has measured the trail at 30 feet from ordinary high water at this point. This also marks a bend in the river with a strong force of current. The riverbank appears to be eroding quite significantly here. Again, staff recommends a condition that no additional riparian vegetation be disturbed and all clearing directed inland away from the river.

Shortly after turning inland towards the pit the trail turns back toward the river within the 50-foot setback to again follow the old path along the dike until it meets the bridge across Glacier Highway. Here the trail links up with a new parking area and existing trails to Eagle Glacier, which also links with new trails around the Methodist Camp.

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.

The proposed development was reviewed for:

  1. Hardship and practical difficulties resulting from an extraordinary situation
  2. or

  3. Hardship and practical difficulty resulting from a unique physical feature affecting only a specific parcel of property, rendering it difficult to carry out the provisions of Title 49.

Our review considered the topographical area of the recreation site as well as pre-existing development at the site. Staff finds hardship and practical difficulty in clearing additional land to move the trail inland away from the river, resulting from the extraordinary situation of the pre-existing road and path along the river. Staff has not found evidence of a unique physical feature affecting the parcel. Based on hardship and practical difficulty, we conclude that this variance request does meet the Grounds for Variances, as established in CBJ §49.20.250 (b). This code provision is required to be met prior to a Board of Adjustment application consideration.

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 relaxation applied for would provide substantial relief to the property owner by allowing development of the trail along pre-existing paths and roadways which link to trails in the main day use area, rather than clearing additional land for a trail farther from the setback. A lesser relaxation would still require moving the trail outside of the pre-existing road, causing unnecessary clearing of trees and other vegetation. The relaxation would be consistent with justice to other government property owners who seek to build public trails along rivers.

This criterion is met.

  1. 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 §49.05.100 Purpose and Intent. Sections applicable to the proposed variance include:

  1. To achieve the goals and objectives, and implement the policies, of the Juneau Comprehensive Plan and 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;
  3. 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 project meets the goals of the Juneau Comprehensive Plan and JCMP, as reviewed in this analysis and the state project review of this development. The community values recreation and trail development, and a full range of park facilities. Staff review indicates no negative impacts to public safety and welfare.

This criterion is met.

3. That the authorization of the variance will not injure nearby property.

Surrounding properties are primarily parklands, therefore trail development is consistent with use in the area. No evidence indicates that authorization of the variance will injure nearby property.

This criterion is met.

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

Recreational trail development is an authorized use in the Rural Reserve zoning district.

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;

Compliance with existing standards would prevent the owner from improving the trail and would limit the trail along the river to the pre-existing conditions on an old road and path. However compliance with standards would not prevent the owner from using the property for recreation, a permissible principal use. This sub-criterion is not met.

(B) 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;

Though other trails exist in the area within the 50-foot setback from rivers, those trails do not fall under the development category because they have been developed and maintained by hand-clearing rather than grading. Therefore compliance with standards would not unreasonably prevent the owner from using the property in a manner consistent with existing development in the neighborhood. This sub-criterion is not met.

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

Staff is unaware of any unique physical features affecting this property that would render compliance with standards unreasonably expensive. This sub-criterion is not met.

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.

The proposed trail will be built on a pre-existing road and path over a dike, which was originally built in the 1970s to service and protect the gravel pit. This road and path are well established and in most cases the bank and riparian vegetation adjacent to the path are stable. Based on these pre-existing conditions, a grant of the variance will not result in a net decrease in overall compliance with the Land Use Code, Building Code, or Title 19. This sub-criterion is met.

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

Any development within the 50 foot riparian setback is detrimental to riparian habitat to some degree. To assess the impact of development within the riparian setback, it is helpful to look at the functions of riparian zones and therefore the intent behind the setback requirement. A document titled, "A Literature Review of Recommended Buffer Widths to Maintain Various Functions of Stream Riparian Areas," by Johnson and Ryba, 1992, identifies the functions of stream riparian zones as follows:

  1. stabilizing stream banks and preventing erosion;
  2. filtering suspended solids, nutrients, and harmful or toxic substances;
  3. moderating the micro-climate of the riparian system;
  4. supporting and protecting fish and wildlife and providing migration corridors.

The riparian zone in this area does not have a significant role in filtering, since trail development and the protected recreation areas surrounding the area do not generate pollutants. However the riparian zone is still important for functions 1, 3, and 4.

This trail will be constructed primarily along an old roadbed or an existing path over the old dike. Though the trail is within 50 feet of the riparian setback, the impact to the area is pre-existing. The impact will not be exacerbated by trail development providing that the remaining riparian vegetation is not disturbed, which staff recommends as a condition of approval to preserve other functions of the riparian buffer, including bank stability and habitat protections.

A grant of the variance will offer the public safe and level accessible use and enhanced hiking and cross-country skiing opportunities along the river, while detriments to habitat will be minimized, as reviewed under the provisions of the Juneau Coastal Management Program. Therefore staff determines that a grant of the variance will result in more benefits than detriments to the area.

This criterion is met.

FINDINGS

  1. Is the application for the requested variance complete?
  2. Yes. We find that application for the requested variance is has all required application forms, and drawings.

  3. Will the proposed development comply with the Juneau Coastal Management Program?

Yes. The proposed development complies with the Juneau Coastal Management Program provided the condition below is met.

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

Staff finds that the proposal meets the Grounds for Variances and all criterion for variances in Section §49.20.250.

RECOMMENDATION

We recommend that the Board of Adjustment adopt the director’s analysis and findings and grant the requested variance, which would allow construction of a trail along Eagle River within the 50 foot riparian setback, with the following condition:

  1. Trail construction on old roadbeds and paths within the 50 foot riparian setback shall not impact additional riparian vegetation, and the footprint of the trail shall not be expanded toward the waterside, pursuant to CBJ §49.70.950 (f).