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Daily Sitka Sentinel

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Sentinel Staff Writer

A ballot initiative aimed at  capping cruise visitation numbers at an interim level of 240,000 starting in 2024 may be headed for a special election this winter.

“Win or lose, it’s going to get some good discussion going,” said Larry Edwards, one of 45 co-sponsors on the application to put the tourism limits to a vote in a special election.

Larry Edwards discusses an initiative to limit the number of cruise ship visitors to Sitka, this morning at a press conference in Harrigan Centennial Hall. (Sentinel Photo by James Poulson)

Edwards submitted his application for the initiative to the city clerk this morning, and, pending approval by the clerk, hopes to begin circulating petitions in October. 

City Administrator John Leach, who has also been working on cruise ship issues, was ready today with a public statement warning of the harm to the community that might be caused by a citizen petition such as the one being proposed by Edwards. His full statement is printed at the end of this story and is also posted on the city website.

Edwards, after calling a press conference on short notice, met at 9:30 a.m. today at Harrigan Centennial Hall with representatives from the media.

He handed out packets of background material on Sitka’s initiative petition process and on similar cruise visitation limits passed in communities outside Alaska. He said the purpose of his ordinance is to:

– improve safety and alleviate nuisances by reducing cruise ship-related overcrowding of people and vehicles on Sitka’s highways, streets, sidewalks and public places;

– protect the health and wellbeing of Sitka residents;

– protect Sitka’s rural small town character and way of life;

– protect Sitka’s integrity as a destination for international, national and Alaskan visitors of all kinds.

Edwards’ proposal is to create a new chapter of Sitka General Code, under Title 22, “Limitation of Cruise Visitation.” Edwards says he and other co-sponsors see it as “pro-tourism, and pro-Sitka.”

If the petition is cleared for circulation, and obtains enough signatures to be put on a ballot and passed by the voters in a special election, the interim cap would be in place starting in 2024.

“In the interim we can be working as a community towards what we want to do more longer term, for 2025 and beyond,” Edwards said. “That’s the place where the tourism task force will have a role.”

He said the proposed six-page ordinance is modified from one that passed last November in Bar Harbor, Maine, and is in effect this summer. Cruise ships and the town signed a memo of understanding which cut back the level of cruise ship tourism by 30 percent and set flat daily limits, Edwards said. The town then passed a ballot initiative, which replaced the MOU. Local Bar Harbor businesses are now suing the town.

The proposed annual interim cap of 240,000 visitors in Edwards’ proposal is based on a “rough estimate for the midrange number of people who were ashore from cruise ships during those years of the 2001 to 2019 pre-pandemic period for which the (annual) cumulative capacity of cruise ships was over 200,000.”

The initiative also includes daily caps, which are based on a percentage of Sitka’s population, rounded up to 9,000. That daily cap number would be below the 5,000 that the city has been using for closing Lincoln Street to vehicular traffic.

Edwards said he put the pieces in motion for the initiative in response to problems he and others saw related to the sharp increase in cruise ship tourism in Sitka, and the city’s existing plans on those issues.

“Personally I think we are overloaded,” he said. “Number one we shouldn’t be closing Lincoln Street. We shouldn’t be put in a circumstance where we feel the need to do that for safety.”

He knows a number of citizens appreciate the closure, which can be done every once in a while, “but I don’t feel we should be forced to do that,” he said. “It’s just absolute chaos. I feel that the cruise industry thinks it’s the planning director of the city and we have to march to its orders. And I think we need to take control back.”

He said cruise numbers reached a high of about 289,000 in 2008. The number was about 383,000 in 2022 and is expected to be 560,000 this year.

Edwards said in the last two seasons he’s been hearing complaints from people affected by air and noise pollution of buses, cruise ships and other traffic.

“It’s just not what a small town is about, it’s not safe,” he said. “I’ve had a number of incidents that have happened to me that weren’t safe, and it’s happened to other people as well. It’s not just the buses, it’s the mobs of people on ebikes, on the streets, on the trails, on the sidewalks, it’s a mess. It shouldn’t have been allowed to happen in 2022 and certainly should not have been allowed to happen in 2023.”

In response to concerns about the growth in cruise ship tourism, the Assembly has established the Tourism Task Force to tackle five stated “directives” at work sessions. The first of the five is about desirable cruise ship numbers. The task force plans to address the first after making recommendations on the other four.

“I would just say that the Assembly has shown no inclination to take the bull by the horns on this in reducing cruise intensity,” Edwards said. “Not for 2022, not for 2023, not for next year. Somebody had to do it and I guess I’m the one. So this initiative is the only game in town for affecting what happens in town for 2024 in giving people in Sitka  relief from the angst and anger that a lot of people are feeling.”

The proposed initiative ordinance has several components:

– Limitations on visitation ashore by cruise passengers and crew, with daily and weekly caps established at 4,500 daily and 13,350 per week. The annual cap would be 240,000 at the outset. Cruise ships of less than 100 wouldn’t be counted toward the limits.

– Requirements of cruise ship port calls, which include a permit issued by the planning department for the current year. The city shall not interfere with people coming ashore, the ordinance says.

– Administration of cruise ship schedule, permits and collection of cruise ship visitation schedule.

– Enforcement of permits and cruise ship visitation scheduling.

Edwards said the data requirement of the ordinance is an important one, because Sitka currently lacks the information it needs to make decisions.

The Assembly in the past year has heard testimony about some of the problems of large numbers of cruise ship visitors, but members have said they had no way to limit those numbers, even if that was legal under U.S. law.

Edwards said sponsors believe Sitka does have the authority to set caps in Alaska Statute 29.04.010, “under which the municipality has all the legislative powers not prohibited by law or charter.” 

“Further,” the proposal says, “the ordinance avoids impinging maritime law or the U.S. Constitution’s clauses for commerce or federal supremacy because: it is narrowly tailored to a legitimate local interest; does not discriminate between local, interstate or foreign commerce and does not have a discriminatory purpose or effect. Further, it says, any burden it places on interstate or foreign commerce is incidental in relation to local benefits; and as a land use ordinance it does not impinge federal fields such as vessel navigation, maritime safety, or security.”

The ordinance would create a new chapter in city code which would “establish an overlay zone called the Sitka Port District ... which overlays all existing zones on the Sitka road system.” Anyone coming ashore from ships will enter the Sitka Port District, Edwards says.

“It’s the Sitka Port District that’s impacted by the intensity of cruise visitation that we have,” he said. “The ordinance has specifications on how that scheduling needs to be done so that it’s fair and doesn’t run afoul of things that are in the U.S. Constitution, like the Commerce Clause” and federal Supremacy Clause.

Edwards said he’s hoping that a special election can be held on the initiative as early as December 12.

Edwards is a 40-plus-year resident, who has been an activist in the past on environmental and forestry issues. He was a co-sponsor of a ballot issue in 1995 that would have created a clear-cut-free zone within a 35-mile radius of downtown Sitka. It lost by 4 votes. He was leader in a 1990s class-action lawsuit that held Alaska Pulp Corp. liable for pollution of sea water around Sitka. The settlement led to establishment of a multi-million dollar charitable trust that makes annual awards to Sitka schools and charitable nonprofits.

He also worked on an initiative related to a downtown dock. 

Edwards said many of the 45 co-sponsors are longtime residents.

City Administrator John Leach issued a two page public statement today warning about the potential adverse legal and economic consequences to Sitka if limits like the ones being proposed by Edwards were adopted for this community.

(The statement is published in its entirety following this story.)

Leach said he had started working on his statement after hearing that an initiative petition on tourism limits was in the works, and that he has been working hard on improvements for the community related to cruise ship traffic.

Chris McGraw, owner of the Sitka Sound Cruise Terminal, commented today after receiving a copy of the ordinance that is proposed for the initiative petition.

“I obviously disagree with it,” he said. “We’re a private business offering a product that is, moorage for cruise ships and access to Sitka, for visitors from around the world. I feel like limiting the number of customers to a private business goes against the freedoms that were granted by living in the United States. And while I don’t have extensive knowledge of federal commerce laws I feel the Constitution protects the rights of Americans to conduct business within the law.”

He noted Sitka is a growing cruise ship port and he and others in the industry are working hard to accommodate the level of passengers that Sitka is seeing without adversely affecting the local residents.

McGraw said increased cruise ship tourism has benefited the community, including those who work in the industry or have started new businesses.

“Sitka has very few opportunities for economic development other than tourism,” he said. “Fishing and tourism are really it.”

Chris Ystad, one of the Assembly liaisons to the Tourism Task Force, expressed his concerns about such an initiative. He said the purpose of the task force is “to work with industry, not tell to industry.”

“I think working together is going to be the best way for a good quality of life for all Sitkans, both businesses and citizens,” he said.

Public Statement

By John Leach,

Sitka City Administrator

Analyzing the Impacts of Tourism

I want to emphasize to the community that I have been and will continue to be deeply committed to addressing the concerns surrounding cruise tourism in our community. Since the initial announcement of our post-COVID “tourism boom,” I have actively engaged in discussions, attended public hearings, and collaborated with various stakeholders to find balanced and sustainable solutions to the cruise industry in Sitka. This is evident in the creation of one of Sitka’s Strategic Plan Action Items which states, “review the impacts and benefits of tourism, and develop policies that prioritize the quality of life for all Sitkans.” My dedication to this issue stems from a genuine desire to preserve our environment and our town, protect everyone’s constitutional rights, and support our local economy.

As your Municipal Administrator, I have consistently sought input from experts, residents, and businesses to ensure that our decisions reflect the diverse needs and perspectives within our community. I firmly believe in an inclusive and transparent approach that allows everyone to have a voice in shaping our future. The creation of our Tourism Task Force is a great step toward achieving this goal.

I understand the complexity of this issue and the need for a comprehensive strategy that takes into account environmental, legal, and economic considerations. My commitment to finding common ground remains unwavering, and I will continue to advocate for solutions that strike a fair balance between these crucial factors.

I’d also like to bring your attention to a matter that has the potential to significantly impact our local economy and the fundamental constitutional rights of our fellow citizens, business owners, and visitors: a citizens’ initiative aimed at limiting cruise tourism in our community through a ballot proposition. While it is essential to consider the environmental, infrastructural, and quality of life concerns associated with this industry, it is equally crucial to examine the potential legal consequences and the broader implications for our economy and individual rights.

Lawsuit Risk: Implementing strict limitations on cruise tourism through a ballot initiative may expose our community to a substantial lawsuit risk. Cruise companies and related businesses have invested considerable resources in our region, and abrupt restrictions could violate existing contracts and legal agreements. Litigation costs could burden our taxpayers, potentially diverting resources away from essential community needs such as education, public safety, and infrastructure improvements.

Constitutional Right to Travel: We must also consider the constitutional right to travel. The United States Constitution recognizes the fundamental right of citizens to move freely between states and within the country. While reasonable regulations can be imposed, overly restrictive measures that limit the ability of individuals to travel freely may raise legal challenges and infringements on this constitutional right. We must ensure that any proposed limitations on cruise tourism are balanced and constitutionally sound.

Economic Impact: Cruise tourism is one of the few remaining economic sectors that have consistently contributed to our community’s financial well-being. It provides jobs, generates revenue, and supports local businesses. Restricting this industry without a comprehensive plan for economic diversification could have dire consequences, including job loss, business closures, and decreased property values. We must carefully consider how we can transition to a more sustainable future without causing harm to the livelihoods of our fellow citizens.

We must approach the issue of limiting cruise tourism with caution and consideration for the potential legal ramifications, the constitutional right to travel, and the economic well-being of our community. While it is paramount to address environmental, infrastructural, and quality of life concerns, we must do so in a way that respects our legal obligations, individual rights, and the livelihoods of our citizens.

Let’s engage in thoughtful dialogue and work collaboratively to find solutions that protect our environment, uphold our constitutional rights, and ensure the continued prosperity of our community.

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April 2004

Photo caption: Grace Larson holds one of the Easter breads she baked for sale at the annual Rainy Day Bazaar Saturday at Centennial Hall. Hundreds turned out for the event, sponsored by the U.S. Coast Guard Spouses and Women’s Association.


April 1974

All youngsters from walking age on up to age 12 are invited to an Easter egg hunt Sunday. Ages 5 and under meet at the Centennial Building; ages 6-9 in front of the visitor center at Totem Park; and ages 10-12 at Totem Park. Some $150 in cash and merchandise prizes will be offered.


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