LBC approves Dillingham, Manokotak annexations, carves exception for Ekuk, Clark's Point beaches

Dec 2, 2016

Commissioners toss staff recommendation, vote to allow city expansions for Dillingham and Manokotak to collect raw fish tax. Set net beaches from Nushagak Point to Ekuk exempted from annexation.


In a rare move, the five members of Alaska's Local Boundary Commission voted directly against staff recommendations and approved two competing annexation petitions. Both Dillingham and Manokotak cleared a big hurdle Thursday, and were granted the LBC's blessing to take large tracts of the Nushagak commercial fishing district within their city boundaries to collect a tax on the salmon harvest. Beaches along the eastern shore north and south of Clark's Point were excluded. KDLG's Dave Bendinger has more.

Commissioners Darroll Hargraves, Lynn Chrystal, and Lavell Wilson were present for three days of public hearings in the Bristol Bay region. Pictured here in Dillingham Tuesday.
Credit KDLG News

The LBC approved an annexation plan for the Nushagak Bay close to the above pictured, after exempting the beaches north and south of Clarks Point from Dillingham's territory.
Credit LBC

Audio Transcript:

Following three long days of public testimony, the LBC returned to Anchorage to make up their minds on the best way to divide the waters of the Nushagak Bay, if at all.

Though the commissioners had seemed open to arguments offered by the public and witnesses for the interested parties, it was never clear they would reject entirely a staff report that had recommended strongly against both annexation petitions.

The commissioners first took up the Manokotak petition, voting three-to-two to approve it as written. They then turned to Dillingham's petition, voting unanimously to approve it with amendments. Though Dillingham had sought to annex all the waters of the Nushagak district, the boundaries were cut back to exclude the Igushik section and the eastern set net beaches from Nushagak Point through Ekuk Beach.

The amendments reflected the LBC's attempt to please both petitioners and the leading opposition. Manokotak and Dillingham both sought to lay claim to the waters of the Igushik section, but the LBC ruled in Manokotak's favor in order to keep the new tracts at the mouths of the Weary and Igushik Rivers "contiguous." Opposition to any annexation of the Nushagak Bay was led by the Ekuk tribal council. This week Ekuk asked the LBC that if it approved the annexation, to at least exempt the beaches from Nushagak Point through Ekuk from the plan, which the LBC agreed to do.

Not all commissioners were pleased with the end result of Thursday's votes.

“I think we made serious mistakes today," Commissioner John Harrington of Ketchikan said at the end of the hearing. "First of all we dealt with a regional resource, in fact in my sense it’s a state resource, and we delegated it to several individual places, which I have some problems with. And ever since we did this initially I have come around to believe that this whole annexation of huge sections of water is best left to boroughs.”

The idea that the Dillingham Census Area should be, or could operate better, as a borough was argued at length this week. A task force under the Bristol Bay Native Association is studying the matter again presently, though all past studies have failed to show a workable feasibility or sufficient local interest. The city of Dillingham has argued that annexation and borough formation need not be mutually exclusive, an idea some on the LBC agreed with.

"Even though we allocated resources, or bodies of water that contain resources, those actions do not preclude the formation of a borough some time in the probably distant future," said Commissioner Robert Harcharek of Barrow.

Commissioner Darroll Hargraves from Wasilla had been the most vocal and inquisitive through the three days of public hearings. He said on numerous occasions that he would prefer to see the area form a borough to collect and share the tax on salmon, but voted to pass both petitions. He was not pleased about voting on the amended boundaries that exempted the eastern beaches without vetting the specific coordinates, which staff were directed to fill in later.

"We passed a motion here today that turns over without exact numbers and places and so forth, where those bounds are. It’s not clear to me that those bounds are going to come back to us the way we visualized it. We didn’t put the parameters into place, which is what we’re supposed to do," Hargraves said.

Commissioner Darroll Hargraves seemed disappointed by the outcome of the LBC vote. Hargraves said he would prefer to see a borough formed, and did not like new boundary lines from exempted beaches left unclear.
Credit KDLG News

Commissioner Lavell Wilson was supportive of the concepts behind the annexation requests, but voted against Manokotak's due to the large territory contained in "tract B." Otherwise, he said he disagreed with Hargraves and Harrington on a couple of points.

"One is that this is setting a precedent. I don’t see that at all," Wilson said. "You look at other towns and cities that have annexed water for a fish tax, so I think that’s a moot argument. As far as the boundaries, looks like they’re pretty well described to me. That’s my opinion."

The chairman, Lynn Chrystal of Wasilla, was generally supportive of both proposals, steering them through the lengthy checklists of criteria that at times other commissioners disagreed with. In his comments, Chrystal made clear he felt the proposals were in the best interests of the state, and would allow the cities to provide more services to their residents and the fishery.

Local Boundary Commission chairman Lynn Chrystal was generally supportive of Manokotak and Dillingham's petition to expand their territories to collect raw fish tax.
Credit KDLG News

Dillingham Mayor Alice Ruby offered a measured reaction Thursday, calling it a positive outcome after a lengthy process.

“I think the LBC did what they could to try and give both communities something for the future," she said. "I think the fact that they approved our petition, even with amendments, demonstrated that they saw the merits of Dillingham’s need to grow and the fact that we’re providing services, and so on.”

Dillingham Mayor Alice Ruby, seated next to attorney Brooks Chandler, made the case to the LBC that the city provides services to the region and the Nushagak district fishery. The city asked again to annex the Nushagak waters to levy a tax on the fish harvest, which the LBC granted in part.
Credit KDLG News

Based on recent averages, the city said its annexation plan would raise around $750,000 annually if the entire district was subject to the 2.5 percent raw fish tax. Back-of-the-envelope calculations led Dillingham officials to estimate the LBC's amendments would result in upwards of $100,000 less revenue, maybe twice that.

Still unsettled are the boundary lines for the exceptions around Clarks Point, and how Dillingham and Manokotak will sort out where some drift net fish are caught when the entire district is open to fishing.

“We’ll have to work with Manokotak on how we’ll implement the tax with that boundary line running down the district. But, we’ve worked with Manokotak on other issues and we certainly will be able to do it in this case,” said Ruby. “I haven’t had as much time to think about that set net exclusion because that just came up during this LBC hearing, so I think it’s just all a matter of implementation, we’ll just have to figure out how it works.”

Robert Heyano has long led the opposition to Dillingham's annexation attempt, successfully overturning the last effort in court. Heyano's team asked the LBC to follow the staff report, or at least exempt the eastern beaches from the plan, which they did.
Credit KDLG News

The commissioners have tasked staff with filling in the blanks on the new boundaries, including the carve out for all of the set net beaches around Clarks Point and Ekuk. A final written version will still need to be voted on again later this month before the petitions are submitted to the Legislature for review.

If the Legislature does not disapprove the petitions next session, each city could begin, or in Dillingham’s case resume, collecting raw fish tax by next season. They will also become two of the biggest little cities in the state of Alaska.

Reach the author at dave@kdlg.org or 907.842.5281.

This map, listed in the Ekuk exhibits, provides the rough boundaries for the eastern beaches exempted from the Nushagak annexation.