Sitka denies petition to put cruise passenger limits to voters

a cruise ship
A Holland America cruise ship at the Halibut Point Marine Services dock in Sitka in 2016. (Photo courtesy Chris McGraw)

The City of Sitka has denied a citizen’s petition to put cruise limitations to voters in a special election this winter.

Larry Edwards received notice from the city on Sept. 29 that a petition he sponsored with more than 40 other Sitkans was denied. A letter from municipal clerk Sara Peterson said the proposed legislation would be unenforceable under the Alaska state constitution.

Edwards sought to limit the number of visitors arriving in Sitka by cruise ship next summer to 240,000 total, with weekly and daily limits. It also would have established a Sitka port district. In his recommendation to reject the petition, municipal attorney Brian Hanson wrote that the section describing how the limits would be enforced was “confusing, misleading and incomplete.” Hanson wrote that establishing a port district through a voter referendum would be “an inadmissible appropriation of a public asset,” since the Assembly has authority over allocating public assets, including land. Hanson also said that the ordinance would usurp the Assembly and planning commission’s authority over city zoning code.

In the letter, Hanson cautions that the ordinance could be unconstitutional at a federal level. In Bar Harbor Maine, citizens recently established a daily cruise passenger limit through a voter referendum, prompting a lawsuit against the city. A ruling in that case will likely come later this year.

In an email to KCAW, Edwards responded to the city’s denial, writing, “Sitkans need relief in 2024 from the excessive cruise tourism of 2022 and 2023. Not pursuing deep cuts for next year is not an option. A next step for that is being developed.”

For the past two summers, the number of cruise passengers visiting Sitka has far exceeded previous records. This summer the city hosted an estimated 560,000 visitors.

And for disclosure, the rejection letter from the city is co-addressed to Larry Edwards and John C. Stein, is a member of the KCAW board of directors. However,  Stein’s name is on the letter only as a alternate addressee to receive mail in the event Edwards were unavailable to receive it. Stein did not participate in drafting the ordinance language or circulating the petition.

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