Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 2:48 PM on Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Plastic bags, no; roundabouts, yes says city council

By McKibben Jackinsky
Staff Writer

There was no shortage of discussion at the Homer City Council's committee and regular meetings Monday. Most of it focused on Ordinance 12-36, banning sellers from providing customers with disposable plastic shopping bags, and Resolution 12-074, directing the city manager to obtain authority from the state for the city to construct traffic control improvements at the intersection of Main Street and Sterling Highway, a section known locally as "the bypass." In the end, the six-member council gave disposable plastic shopping bags a thumbs down and chose to combine city dollars with state funding in hopes of having a roundabout constructed in the troublesome intersection.

"Difficult to understand" was Mayor James Hornaday's criticism of the shopping bag ban, but ordinance sponsors, council member David Lewis and Beau Burgess, disagreed.

Disposable plastic shopping bag, as defined by Ordinance 12-36: A bag made from plastic or an y material marketed or labeled as "biodegradable" or "compostable" that is neither intended nor suitable for continuous reuse that is less than 2.25 mils thick, designed to carry customer purchases from the seller's premises, except for: bags used by customers inside stores to package bulk items such as fruit, vegetables, nuts, grains, candy, or small hardware items, such as nails and bolts; bags used to contain dampness or leaks form items such as frozen foods, meat or fish, flowers or potted plants; bags used to protect prepared foods or bakery goods; bags provided by pharmacists to contain prescription drugs; newspaper bags, laundry or dry cleaning bags; or bags sold for consumer use off the seller's premises for such purposes as the collection and disposal of garbage, pet waste, or yard waste."

"All we're talking about banning is (bags that are) 2.25 mil thick. We're just talking about disposable bags for carryout," said Burgess, cutting through the ordinance's lengthy definition of disposable plastic shopping bags (see info box, this page).

Council member Barbara Howard noted the ordinance's penalty section.

"Who is the plastic bag cop on the payroll and if we don't have a plastic bag cop, then I think this ought to come out of there," said Howard. "It's just wrong to act like you're going to enforce something when you have no intention of doing so. It's bad policy."

Council member Beth Wythe stated her intention to vote against the ordinance, the biggest reason being the one cited by Howard. She suggested a grassroots effort to do away with plastic bags as a better approach, rather than "having government make rules we're not going to enforce."

Debbie Wise, owner of Alaska Fish Connection, criticized the bag ban for its costly impact on small businesses that would be forced to replace bags already purchased.

"It seems that everyone wants us to keep spending money and bring in sales tax, but we're not getting a lot of help," said Wise.

The ordinance drew more attention during the council's regular evening meeting.

"Unfortunately, plastic disposable bags are not really disposable and stick around for a very long time," said Tammie Shrader, giving a statistic that less than 5 percent are actually recycled in the United States. "Consumers tend to use single-use bags when they're free. If you don't make them available as a first choice, they tend to use reusable bags. Reusable bags can bring savings to retailers because they don't have to restock and supply them."

Megan Murphy added other reasons for supporting the ban.

"Individual consumers benefit from the convenience (of disposable plastic bags), but the population as a whole bears the cost of production and disposal," said Murphy, listing as costs carbon dioxide emissions, marine debris, endangerment to terrestrial and marine species and solid waste in landfills.

The council approved an amendment from Burgess allowing for bags purchased before the ordinances takes effect Jan. 1 to continue to be provided by sellers until such inventories were completely used, provided the sellers were able to provide documentation of the purchase date. Lewis offered an amendment to impose a $50 fine for violating the ban applicable on a daily, rather than one-time, basis.

"That's way too much," said council member Francie Roberts. "We're here to help the environment, not necessarily fine business owners."

In a roll call vote, the council was split three-to-three, with Burgess, Lewis and Wythe supporting the amendment and Howard, Roberts and council member Brian Zak opposing it. That left Hornaday to break the tie.

"I think $50 is too much so no," he said.

Howard attempted to amend the ordinance by removing the penalty section.

"If we cannot enforce, have no intention of enforcing or randomly enforcing, this is bad public policy," said Howard. "Until we can prove we'll actively enforce it, remove it."

A roll call vote again ended in a tie, with Howard, Zak and Wythe supporting the amendment and Burgess, Lewis and Roberts opposing it.

"There has to be some kind of consequence," said Hornaday, breaking the tie with his no vote.

Before the ordinance was put to a vote, Burgess said, "I think this is a good compromise, a good way for both sides of the argument to reach across the aisle. We need to grow some cajones as a community and do something."

The ordinance passed four-to-two, with Burgess, Lewis, Roberts and Zak voting for the ban; Howard and Wythe voting against it.

Resolution 12-074 brought out supporters of a roundabout, rather than a stoplight, as the answer for traffic control at the corner of Main Street and the Sterling Highway. An alternative to the resolution, as recommended by City Manager Walt Wrede in a memorandum to the mayor and council, was to designate $2 million in city dollars to be added to an Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities proposal to obtain $2.8 federal funds which would allow for a broader scope of the project and keep responsibility with the state for improvements the two state-owned roads.

"I strongly want to focus first of all on the disappointment when we put first a stoplight in to Homer," said Deb Lowney. "There was a lot of pride in saying we had no stop lights. Now we have one. I'd like to keep it to one."

Providing both written and in-person testimony before the council, William and Judy Marley encouraged a no vote on the resolution in favor of a roundabout constructed by the state.

"A roundabout makes good solid sense, allowing traffic to flow continuously, not requiring long waits," the Marleys wrote in an email to the mayor and council.

Franco Venuti a less costly alternative: redirecting traffic up Main Street between the Sterling Highway to Pioneer Avenue and down Heath Street between Pioneer Avenue and the Sterling Highway .

Noting accidents that have occurred at the Main Street-Sterling Highway intersection, Wythe said it was disturbing to consider the possibility of additional injuries or even fatalities while waiting for DOT&PF to obtain funding for the project.

"Roundabouts do nothing to help pedestrian or bike traffic," said Howard. "I will vote we move ahead and take charge of this ourselves."

Hornaday cautioned that if the city took the lead, it would "have to handle the contract, the bid, we'll be stuck with all this. It doesn't make any sense to me, but it's up to the council."

Wythe said the city wouldn't have to handle building of the project.

"We hand it to someone that's qualified," said Wythe.

"Don't kid yourself," said Hornaday. "If the city takes this on, it's the city's project. ... If things go wrong, it comes right to the city."

In a roll call vote, the resolution failed, with Burgess, Lewis, Roberts and Zak opposing it; Howard and Wythe supporting it.

The next meeting of the Homer City Council is Sept. 10, with a committee of the whole at 5 p.m. and a regular meeting at 6 p.m.

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinsky@homernews.com.