Trail easement change rejected for FNSB
A controversial trails easement ordinance was narrowly rejected by the Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly last night. It pitted property rights against public access to trails. The vote came after the mayor threatened to veto the ordinance.
Current law says when a property owner subdivides a parcel that has a Class A or B trail on it, that the platting board “shall” designate a trail easement on the land. The ordinance would have changed the word “shall” to “may,” and added language about consent. It would give the landowner the option to protect the trail with an easement or not. It was sponsored by Assemblymember Jimi Cash.
“A property owner should always have a say in how their property is used,” Cash said.
It would only apply to trails that are identified on the Comprehensive Trail Plan – and are Category A with “regional or statewide significance,” or Category B with “community-wide significance.”
At the public hearing, 20 people testified against the ordinance, and to leave the current law in place. Here are Max Plichta, Sandra Zirnheld, and Kaitlyn Rose.
“Trail easements have been required for over 40 years. Land owners must choose to subdivide. They have tremendous influence, and the borough has a lot of flexibility, and as evident in the Trail Plan update, the borough takes every effort to ensure trails in the Plan don't cross private land.” Plichta said.
“The current process for requiring dedication of easements upon subdivision for category and A and B trails only, is a reasonable balance between private property rights and public interest. Upon subdividing private land, there are other requirements for other public needs, such as setbacks, lot sizes, and easements for roads and utilities. This is no different,” Zirnheld said.
“Trails only work if they are complete. One person can choose to block an entire trail if this ordinance went through,” Rose said.
Sponsor Jimi Cash told the Assembly he was upset at the testimony.
“You should all be ashamed of yourselves if they're advocating for taking personal property rights so that you can use a trail,” Cash said.
As Assembly members debated, they mentioned the deluge of opposition messages that were also sent to them.
“I wasn’t able to get through the 165 emails that we got,” said Mindy O'Neall.
Member Mindy O’Neall said she did not hear from more than a handful of residents in support of the law change. But several people in the audience at the Thursday night meeting raised their hands.
The ordinance was co-sponsored by Tammie Wilson, who gave an example of how a property owner could be surprised that they have a Class A or B trail on their property.
“And then all of a sudden I come into the borough, subdivide my property, and I find out that as soon as I subdivide this land that I have been paying for this entire time and taking care of it, will have a dedicated easement running through that may not go the way I wanted to be able to split my property for my children.” Wilson said.
Presiding officer Aaron Lojewski substituted a version of the ordinance that would waive any fees for a property owner to dedicate a trail easement.
But that was not enough for Borough Mayor Bryce Ward, who said he did not support the ordinance.
“And I will veto this. That's what I'm communicating to you to try to help understand where I'm at with this. I will also remind the assembly. I did recommend through memo that this get referred to Platting because there were issues that I think could have been addressed. That's where I'm at,” Ward said.
Jimi Cash asked his fellow Assembly members to vote for the ordinance.
“And so, what I heard from the mayor is that this is something he couldn't let pass his desk. And he can veto it if he wants to, but then also we can vote down things that he brings forward too. So, do we need to start this? Or could we just agree that private property rights should trump a user group?” Cash asked.
Ward said to change the code that had stood for 40 years it should be better vetted.
"I would hope that the assembly doesn't turn to petty politics with items of the business of the borough when they come forward from the administration, because that's not what I'm doing," Ward explained.
The Assembly rejected the ordinance on a 4 to 5 vote, with presiding officer Aaron Lojewski voting against his own substituted version. He said later that “both sides were right,” but he thought the ordinance was not the best solution.