Planning commission defines ‘water-dependent’ buildings

The Kenai Peninsula Borough planning commission issued a more detailed definition for buildings placed inside the anadromous stream setback.

Most of the population of the peninsula lives near a body of water, many of which are anadromous streams. While the area was being settled and developed, this never presented a problem, but when the habitat protection ordinance was established in 2011, it raised questions of how riverfront property could be developed.

Placing buildings inside the 50-foot buffer zone can be tricky because it requires a conditional use permit. One of the criteria for the permit is that the building is “water-dependent,” but that term remained undefined.

The planning department has been receiving more requests to build along water bodies and some of the planning commission members mentioned they were concerned about areas such as Poacher’s Cove, where development encroaches on the river.

Dr. Rick Foster, one of the planning commission members, raised the question of the definition during a discussion about a residential property close to the river. The applicant argued that the trailer is water dependent because it is a residence and because of the lot size.

Foster was absent from the Monday meeting because of the snow on the roads, but the commission voted to say that water-dependent structures “may include but are not limited to piers, boat ramps or elevated walkways for purpose of enabling access to the water for activities such as fishing.”

Small lots where there is little space to develop drove the conversation. If someone owns a lot on the river and wants to develop it but the structure is not water-dependent, they will not be able to develop it. The commissioners agreed that it would be unfair to take away the ability to develop small lots but still wanted to define water-dependent.

Sandra Holsten, one of the planning commission members, said she thought the list of the three water-dependent structures may be limiting and should be expanded to include the phrase “may include but are not limited to.”

Holly Montague, one of the borough attorneys, said the ordinance could not list everything and suggested the “not limited to” because there may be future structures that could be water-dependent, such as a bridge or a boathouse.

There may be other temporary structures as well, said Robert Ruffner, a member of the planning commission and the executive director of the Kenai Watershed Forum.

“I can see why we might not want to tie it down exactly,” Ruffner said. “Scientific equipment would be one (exception), Fish and Game are doing stuff on the edge of the river, and they need to be able to do that. Fences are another one that we’ve talked about for a long time. If the water’s creating a situation where they need to keep people from trespassing, that kind of fence would be need tied to the water.”

The commission approved the definition as a resolution and sent it to the borough assembly.

“In the future we’re going to have to address structures such as those in Poacher’s Cove and small lots that don’t necessarily correspond to this definition and were going to have to come back within the five-year review along with water lines and wells, which wouldn’t really fit into the water-dependent state,” said Max Best, the planning director, at the planning commission’s Monday meeting.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at

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