Story last updated at 5:21 p.m. Thursday, June 13, 2002

Compromise appears near on bluff seawall construction
By R.J. Kelly
Managing Editor

After several months delay over environmental concerns, city and federal officials were closing in Wednesday on a compromise that would allow work to begin on a 2,000-foot seawall Ocean Drive Loop residents hope will prevent their homes from toppling over the eroding bluff.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Ryan Winn, project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which must issue a federal permit for the $1 million project, said he was still seeking to iron out last-minute legal and procedural issues with Homer city officials and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

City officials, contracted engineers and a group of about a dozen homeowners have been working for more than a year trying to come up with a plan to stop the erosion that has left parts of at least one home teetering over the brink.

Assuming the city agrees to conditions that Fish and Wildlife and the Environmental Protection Agency seek concerning long-term monitoring of the effects of the wall, Winn said he expects to issue the required permit by next week.

Winn said he must also complete an environmental assessment as part of the permit process <> a job hampered by a computer crash at his Anchorage offices this week.

Even as Winn said he was continuing to discuss what he termed "legal questions" and the "enforceabilitity" of conditions the other federal agencies sought, word had been filtering down informally to Homer officials and bluff residents that a compromise seemed close at hand.

Several Ocean Drive Loop residents spoke up during Monday's City Council meeting to thank city officials for continuing to pursue construction of the seawall.

Paul and Marilyn Hueper, Larry Goode and Don McNamara all expressed their appreciation for continued efforts by the city to move forward on the project.

Council members had no comment and took no action on the seawall project Monday.

The Army Corps reopened its public-comment period on the project during May after it was stalled in early April when several federal and state agencies sought more information.

After two meetings in April, one in Homer that included a tour of the bluff by local, state and federal offices, and another meeting in Anchorage, Carey Meyer, Homer's director of Public Works, has said repeatedly that he believed most of the questions delaying a permit had been addressed by the city's Anchorage-based consulting engineer Doug Jones.

Continued concerns over how the wall might change the way waves and tides erode the bluff and transport sediment around the shore resulted in comments filed on the plan over the past month.

Winn's deliberations come on the heels of an objection filed by Marsha Combes, director of the Alaska Operations Office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which points to the potential of increased erosion on the Homer Spit if the proposed $1 million wall changes the normal coastal erosion patterns.

The federal Fish and Wildlife Service is also seeking long-term monitoring of the project to make sure it is not adversely affecting wildlife habitat in the shoreline area, particularly for sea birds.

Phillip North, an aquatic ecologist with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Kenai, has spearheaded the EPA concerns that construction of the proposed fiberglass-sheet wall might shift the normal movement of sediment that naturally builds beaches and the nearby Homer Spit. Such shifts could potentially increase erosion of the Spit itself, North fears.

California-based scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey are expected to be in this month on an unrelated study of Kachemak Bay, and North said he is hoping they will take a look at the seawall site.

On June 4, Sue Magee, project-review coordinator for the state's Office of Governmental Coordination, issued a finding that the project is consistent with state guidelines in the coastal zone. That office coordinates how various Alaska state agencies get involved in the project.

In issuing her "consistency finding," Magee advised the city of Homer "to monitor the project area post construction to document any significant changes or effects to the beach and adjacent properties."

Such monitoring is advised, Magee wrote, "not only to achieve a greater understanding of the seawall's effects on the natural process of erosion and sediment transport, but also so that any necessary corrective action can be taken expeditiously before an emergency arises."

Maureen deZeeuw, based in Anchorage with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said this week, "we do have concerns with the project, but at the same time we see the need for erosion control."

In seeking to organize monitoring of the wall's effects over the next few years, deZeeus said, "We are asking for cooperation from all the interested parties."

Based on his latest discussions with EPA and Fish and Wildlife officials, Winn said the final decision will rest with the city of Homer over whether officials will accept the monitoring conditions being sought.

"If the city of Homer formally requests that the EPA conditions be included on their permit, then I can put it in ... and that will close the loop on that," Winn said Wednesday.

Assuming the city does that, North said the Seattle-based regional administrator of the EPA will not file a formal objection to the project. A letter with such an objection is waiting in the wings, if the city does not agree to the permit conditions, North said.

Meyer could not be reached for comment this week, despite several messages left for him. Late last week, Meyer expressed optimism that the issue was being successfully worked out among the various agencies.

If a permit is granted soon, Meyer said last week that he hopes construction to start this summer with completion about a 45 days later.

Most of the cost of the project is expected to be repaid by property owners over a long-term loan bonded by the city.