Sitkans push for vote on cruise visitor limits

Tourists in Sitka (Tash Kimmell/KCAW)

As a record-breaking cruise season in Sitka comes to a close with the promise of another equally busy summer on the horizon in 2024, some are wondering how the Southeast Alaska community can sustain its tourist boom. Now a group of Sitkans is calling for a cap on the number of cruise passengers next year. They want to put that question out to the voters in a special election this winter.

Sitkan Larry Edwards has drafted a ballot initiative before. In 1995, the former pulp mill employee organized an effort to limit clear cutting.

“It was to establish a zone within 35 miles of downtown that would be clear-cut free,” Edwards said. “It lost by four votes.” 

He hopes his newest initiative doesn’t meet the same fate. When asked whether cruise tourism is more or less extractive than logging, he smiles and said he’ll have to think about that. Either way, he thinks it too should be limited. 

“It’s just absolute chaos. I feel that the cruise industry thinks it’s the planning director of the city and that we have to march to its orders,” Edwards said. “I think we need to take control back.” 

This summer, cruise ships brought around 560,000 people to Sitka, breaking last year’s new record, and more than doubling any year before that in Sitka’s history. Edwards said he thinks it’s time to ask Sitkans where the bar should be. 

“There have been a number of surveys done that have shown that about two-thirds of people in town think it’s way over the top, and has been for quite a while. It’s been controversial since the 1990s,” Edwards said. “And nobody’s really ever asked…the people of the city of Sitka what they want, and asked them to vote on some number. This is the first, and someone had to stick their neck out to do it.”

For the last few months, Edwards has been quietly drafting an ordinance that would ask voters to decide whether Sitka should establish a “port district” on its road system and limit cruise visitation to 240,000 people next year. 

He’s using Bar Harbor Maine as a template. Like Sitka, Bar Harbor’s cruise ship dock is privately owned. Last November, voters approved an initiative to cap cruise traffic, which could take effect next summer, pending litigation. 

“The initiative set a flat limit of 1,000 persons per day, crew plus passengers, that would be allowed to get off of any number of cruise ships that came to town. That past two-to-one,” Edwards said. “It’s very stringent. And what I have in this initiative is much more relaxed than that, and rather than just having a flat number, there’s some logic to the numbers that are in it.”

Edwards took the last 20 pre-pandemic years of cruise traffic with passenger counts over 200,000, and made the average the cap. The ordinance also includes a weekly cap of just over 13,000 as well as daily limits. It also would require the cruise companies to secure permits with the city and provide the city with daily updated data on passenger and crew counts. 

Edwards turned the ordinance in to city hall on Friday morning with the signatures of 44 other sponsors. As of press time, Municipal Administrator John Leach hadn’t seen the initiative, so he said he couldn’t comment on its specifics, but he’d anticipated that a ballot proposition was coming down the pike. On Friday, Leach published a letter addressing the city’s response to tourism, warning that a ballot initiative to limit tourism comes with economic, constitutional and legal concerns. 

“My hope was that…we as the city, we would get more of an opportunity to continue working with the stakeholders,” Leach said. “We had hoped that our tourism taskforce and the great work that we’re doing there would have an opportunity to take hold and produce something. Because I think an agreement with stakeholders that’s not so restrictive is the better path forward.”

He said he worries that any ballot initiative to limit cruise traffic could lead to litigation. That’s been the case in Bar Harbor where local business owners sued the city. A federal judge is expected to issue a ruling in the case soon. 

“There is a big litigation risk, and the way we’re going to have to pay for that litigation, when and if it comes this way, is right out of our general fund. And our general fund is what pays for our public schools, it pays for our infrastructure, and it pays for our public safety,” Leach said. “So the litigation costs are going to have to come from somewhere…if we get to a place where stakeholders decide to pursue this in a legal matter.” 

Leach said he feels that the city is doing what it can to respond to the influx. In addition to the work of the tourism task force the assembly established last year, he’s collaborating with other Southeast communities with plans to develop an agreement with the cruise industry, similar to the recent “memorandum of understanding” Juneau struck.

But Edwards thinks Sitka needs to respond faster. He believes the ordinance is pro-tourism and pro-Sitka. And it’s meant to be a stopgap.  

“So the idea is to give Sitka the relief it needs for 2024 and then, win or lose, it’s going to get some good discussion going. If it wins, it’ll be in place for a year,” Edwards said. “In the interim, we can be working as a community towards what we want to do more longer term for 2025 and beyond.” 

Whether Edwards’ initiative will make it on the ballot yet remains unclear. First, he has to collect just over 800 signatures — a third of the voters in the last municipal election. He has three months to do that, but he said he hopes to knock it out in three weeks. Then the ballot prop must be vetted by the city. If it gets the green light, Sitkans could be voting on cruise limits in a special election by early December. 

View the proposed ordinance here.

Read Leach’s full letter here.

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