City of Homer, Army Corps of Engineers gear up for multimillion-dollar investigation into harbor expansion
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is gearing up for a three-year, multimillion-dollar investigation into potentially expanding Homer’s harbor. The process is just getting underway, but it’s not too early to be a part of the conversation.
Opening up the port for large vessels isn’t a new idea. A 2008 assessment of a proposed expansion didn’t meet the Army Corps of Engineers’ cost-benefit standards, but after re-evaluating the proposal in 2019, they decided to move forward.
Now, they’re planning to start on an in-depth analysis of a possible expansion this spring. The City of Homer and the State of Alaska are each contributing $750,000 to support the Corps of Engineers’ investigation, and the federal government is funding the remaining $1.5 million.
Bruce Sexauer is chief of the civil works project management branch with the Corps of Engineers. He said it’s not uncommon for the agency to revisit earlier projects.
“There's been more demand growing in the area for harbors and for moorage,” Sexauer said. “With that, there are definitely more benefits to be found.”
While potential economic impacts are an important component, he said the Corps of Engineers will take a comprehensive approach to its investigation.
“We can look at other social effects,” Sexauer said. “How is this going to improve the ability of those that are using the harbor and region for their cultural, historical practices? Is this going to help or hinder? Do we need to take a look at that? And then, of course, also environmental issues. Where are we going to be building this project? Are there things that we need to weigh from the side of the environment as well?”
According to the city, the number of boats that are too big to fit in the harbor’s largest 86-foot stalls doubled in the decade following the Corps of Engineers’ 2008 report. Bryan Hawkins, the city’s harbormaster, said the port’s current solution for larger vessels is rafting them side-to-side, up to three boats deep.
“You've got to have crew available to move, you've got to be more responsive,” Hawkins said. “It's certainly not the same as having a vessel in a slip.”
He also sees expanding the harbor as a way to bring new business into Homer and to the state, he added.
“This study will show significant state and federal benefits for building this facility and the truth is, in the state of Alaska, there are very few locations that would offer this opportunity,” he said. “We are road connected, and we have a natural bench that we can build onto, and that creates a great opportunity.”
For Penelope Haas, vice president of Kachemak Bay Conservation Society, opening Homer’s port to larger vessels raises a host of other questions. There isn’t yet a concrete plan for what an expansion might look like — and whether that will primarily mean more fishing boats, or container ships and large cruise vessels — but Haas said any development will have ripple effects across the community.
“It's also a thing that really should be talked about in the context of our schools, our roads and of the physical development of this town,” she said.
The Conservation Society recently hosted a meeting with about 25 people. The group discussed how large cruises and container ships may impact local roads, housing and the environment. They also focused on how additional capacity for small boats may increase competition for existing local companies and add to water traffic around Kachemak Bay.
Haas said she also wishes officials had more thoroughly examined how the 2019 evaluation measured potential economic benefits of the expansion before committing resources to the project.
Now that the Corps of Engineers’ general investigation is slated to start, Haas hopes people in Homer ask questions about how a larger harbor might fit into ongoing comprehensive city planning.
“If you're talking about bringing 200 large vessels in here, each with five to 10 people on it, and an unknown number of cruise ships and stuff— we really should be talking about these things,” she said.
Through the three-year investigation, the Corp of Engineers will host a series of public meetings, which they call “charrettes.” Sexauer said their goal is to be transparent and include community feedback in the process.
At the Homer City Council meeting on Monday evening, port and harbor commission chair Crisi Matthews said she feels the advisory commission has been left out of crucial decision making so far, yet is still expected to approve important policies.
“In respect to leases, the tariffs and the business plan, those all affect the bottom line of our enterprise,” she told the council. “We are asked to give a stamp of approval, but not be included on the policy that is brought before the commission prior to council to work on together.”
Matthews said the advisory commission is still in the dark about how the expansion process is going to proceed, and said they are hearing concerns from the public they aren’t able to answer.
“I would like to empower those that are concerned and assist them to be part of answering those questions, not defer the process, to wait for the concern to be so loud that Homer re-earns itself the ‘city that can’t agree on any growth’ label,” she said.
The Corps of Engineers and city are working to finalize an official cost sharing agreement in coming weeks before the general investigation can formally begin.
Ryan Foster is special project coordinator for Homer, and is working on updating comprehensive planning for the city and the Spit, a process he said also relies on robust public outreach and may have overlap with harbor expansion conversations.
“It's about taking a look at all the aspects for how the community works: Everything from public services, police fire, water, sewer, transportation. A comprehensive plan process is to look at all these moving parts, and making sure that they're working together,” Foster said.
It’s still early in the process, but he said there will be public meetings going forward about the harbor, and many ways for the community to engage. For now, people who are interested can sign up for email updates on the port expansion on the city of Homer’s website.