FNSB Assembly votes to keep requiring trail dedication on subdivided private property

A few issues caused tensions at the Borough Assembly Meeting.
Published: Jan. 13, 2023 at 5:31 PM AKST
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - Tensions ran high at the January 13 meeting of the Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly, as members debated no less than the balance between private property rights and the community’s interest.

In the borough, when property owners subdivide their land, they are required to dedicate easements for certain kinds of trails already there. This requirement is in place to keep the borough’s comprehensive trail plan going without gaps.

An ordinance, sponsored by Jimi Cash and Tammie Wilson, aimed to change borough code, giving property owners the ability to decide whether they wanted those easements.

Wilson, who fills Borough Assembly Seat D, said, “This ordinance would make it up to the property owner to make that determination whether or not they wanted to dedicate that piece of their property as a trail.”

Emails to the assembly overwhelmingly opposed the ordinance. Kristen Kelly, Borough Assembly member holding Seat G, explained, “We’ve gotten, just in the last week, 164 emails asking us to protect the trails system. We’ve gotten 12 saying ‘Let’s protect property rights.’”

“I have never gotten so many emails, and heard so much lopsided testimony for something,” she added.

“The community has spoken loud and clear,” said Assembly member Mindy O’Neall.

More than a dozen members of the community testified against it at the meeting, citing the value of the borough’s trail system, including Max Plichta, who said, “Overwhelmingly, residents told the assembly that they support the protection of trails for their economic, health, and quality-of-life benefits. Why, in response to the overwhelming support and community engagement, is the assembly considering stripping the very protections that people so vocally want in place?”

Meanwhile, Sandra Zirnheld said in her public testimony, “The current process for requiring dedication of easements upon subdivision for category A and B trails only, not all trails that exist, just A and B trails, is a reasonable balance between private property rights and public interest.”

However, Assembly member Barbara Haney was unmoved, saying, “That’s not the perspective of the rest of the borough. In other parts of the borough, people feel very strongly about their property rights.”

Opponents of the measure decried the potential harm that could come from individual gaps in the widespread system of trails.

Meanwhile those in favor emphasized the importance of property rights. These included co-sponsor Jimi Cash, who said, “I don’t personally feel that it’s right for a user group to have superior rights to a property than the owner.”

“Private property rights have to trump user groups’ rights,” Cash added.

Borough Mayor Bryce Ward indicated his intention to veto the ordinance if passed, drawing ire from its supporters. “This is not something that I’m going to let pass my desk, so I understand you’ve got to vote the way that you’ve got to vote but I think we’ve heard pretty loud and clear, and we’ve got a long precedent of this being very successful in the community,” Ward said.

“I love the fact that we now have a mayor that’s following along the lines of Lisa Murkowski,” Cash countered.

Earlier, Cash said, “Every person who is advocating for a user group over the person who owns land, you should be ashamed of yourselves.”

Ultimately, the ordinance failed in a vote of 5 to 4.