SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


Surf's Up at South Point Higgins Beach
By Eric Muench


September 25, 2008

Borough voters will soon have to decide whether they should authorize the Borough to purchase a recreation beach that most long-time residents thought was theirs all along. Proposition 1 on the Ketchikan Gateway Borough's October 7 ballot will ask: "Shall Ordinance 1496 authorizing the acquisition of South Point Higgins Beach funded through the sale of Borough lands and authorizing issuance of notes or other debt instruments in connection with the acquisition in an amount not to exceed $1,170,000.00 be approved?"

jpg South Point Higgins Beach

South Point Higgins Beach
Photo by Ardath Piston

Confusion and consternation about the need to buy what most people had assumed was a public beach is understandable. The land had been owned by the State of Alaska and managed for public recreation. Generations of Ketchikan families have enjoyed swimming, beachcombing and summer fun while watching baby eagles in the on-site nest tree grow up. It was even listed in the Borough Comprehensive Plans of 1976 and 1986 as the site where "A waterfront park shall be established"

But trouble had been brewing. In 1978 the State had dissolved the Alaska Mental Health Trust and merged its land base into other State lands for common management. Mental health advocates sued, (State v. Weiss, 1985) and after lengthy court proceedings, a 1994 settlement required re-creation of the original Trust lands. But in the intervening years the State had sold many acres of it in land disposals. So the State administration transferred many sites of public general Department of Natural Resource (DNR) lands to the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority (still DNR but under a special category). It is mandated to be managed by the Trust Land Office for revenue generation to fund statewide mental health programs. South Point Higgins Beach was among those sites, as were Coast Guard Beach, Whipple Creek beach and Mountain Point. Although The Trust owns only the 4.53 acre uplands, the public "tide and submerged" lands (most of the actual beach) is not accessible from the road without crossing Mental Health land.

Ketchikan Beaches Association, a local citizen group formed to preserve public access to recreational beach sites, partnered with the Ketchikan Outdoor Recreation and Trails Coalition and with the Southeast Alaska Land Trust to work for public acquisition of these beach properties. As a result the Borough Assembly and staff started talking to the Trust Land Office in the spring of 2007. When a planned competitive sale was announced the following August, Assemblyman Glen Thompson's request for additional negotiation time was granted. Assembly members John Harrington and Glen Thompson and manager Dan Bockhorst were active in pursuing acquisition. The Borough has since negotiated a non-competitive sale of the site (U S Survey 3089, Lot 123) for 120% of its appraised value, a requirement of Mental Health Trust policy.

In order to avoid bonding or raising sales or property taxes for the purchase, Assembly members and Borough management fashioned a plan by which purchase payments would be borrowed from the Borough's Land Trust Fund and repaid to that fund as other Borough lands are sold. This also allows future conservation easement sale dollars or money grants received by the Borough to be applied toward the purchase price. But since an "internal debt" is to be created, Assembly members determined that the purchase must be contingent on public approval at the polls.

If the negotiated sale to the Borough does not take place in the next few months the parcel will be at risk of future competitive sale. If it is sold and developed as residential lots for which it is zoned, public access to a well used recreation beach will sadly end. Therefore voters face the vexing question of spending local money to preserve a valuable site that most thought was already theirs.

Eric Muench
Ketchikan, AK

Received September 24, 2008 - Published September 25, 2008


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