After public objection, borough trims land auction list

The list of Kenai Peninsula Borough-owned parcels up for auction got significantly shorter after the borough assembly trimmed the list in response to public concern.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly amended a proposed list of lands set to go up for auction this spring at its April 5 meeting, removing a number of parcels scattered around the peninsula. A number of neighboring residents objected to the sale of various properties, saying they would disrupt the neighborhood or weren’t suitable to be sold because of issues with the lands themselves.

Every year, the borough’s Lands Department selects and nominates pieces of land to auction off, subject to approval by the assembly. This year, the department nominated a 20-acre parcel of land near the end of Maudi Drive in the Ciechanski Road neighborhood near Kenai. That sparked protest among the nearby residents, who say the property there is important to wildlife and more residential development would impact the existing wells. About 30 people signed a petition to the assembly opposing the reclassification and sale of the property.

Gene Moyer, who lives nearby, told the assembly he’s already seen a lot of change in the area, particularly to wells. The notification period for comment was too short for many residents to have time to weigh in, too, he said.

“That area that you’re proposing, that 20 acres, we still have some resident carbou and moose, and a bear, even” he said. “…I’m saying that we don’t need that traffic down Maudi Drive. There’d have to be some borough construction going on. We had a problem there years back with Enstar putting in the gas lines. We’ve had numerous problems just on Maudi Drive to keep it in the area that is a sanctuary for those animals.”

Others objected to the sale of land near Happy Valley for similar reasons. The borough nominated several parcels of land for sale in the area and reclassifying them as residential. Michel Frelin wrote in a public comment to the borough that the residential classification on the land would disturb the neighborhood and wildlife.

“Clearing and plowing of those lots would be so noisy and cause additional erosion to that slope to (Cook) Inlet,” he wrote.

The Lands Department staff evaluates properties and recommends them for reclassification and sale each year, Lands Department Director Marcus Mueller told the assembly. Properties are offered in a sealed bid auction, with bids accepted until May 31. If a parcel isn’t purchased, then it goes to the over-the-counter sale in the fall, with the sale price set as the starting auction price, Mueller said.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Planning Commission voted unanimously not to support the reclassification and sale, in part because of the public objection.

“I saw the Planning Commission struggle quite a bit with this,” Mueller said. “Probably in the same way that conversation is happening (at the assembly).”

Assembly member Kenn Carpenter said he understood the neighbors’ objections about property development but supported most of the sales other than two in north Kenai on the bluff, which is rapidly eroding.

“It’s progress, it happens,” he said. “If it happens the right way, I’m for it. If it’s a big disturbance, tearing up stuff, I think that’s something the borough can look at while the permits are being pulled.”

Assembly member Kelly Cooper proposed an amendment to remove the parcels that people objected to, including the Ciechanski Road area parcel, several parcels in the north Kenai area, Happy Valley and Ninilchik. The amendment passed 6-3, with Carpenter and assembly members Brent Hibbert and Dale Bagley voting against it.

Pierce suggested during the Finance Committee meeting that if the neighbors want to preserve the land rather than see it be sold for development, they should band together and buy it. In answer to a question from Cooper during the assembly meeting, Mueller said the borough does not usually engage in direct land sales to individuals unless they meet specific criteria, such as the land not being useful to anyone else.

“If the property would be generally usable for anybody that could buy it, we move it to the general land sale,” he said.

The proceeds from the sale go into the land trust fund. That particular fund has become an object of interest in the last few months as Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce has proposed withdrawing about $3 million from it to help pay for borough operations in fiscal year 2019. During the assembly’s Finance Committee meeting on April 5, Pierce said the administration is working on a plan for the management of the borough lands and the fund as a priority.

“What I’d like to do is get a budget approved, get a long range plan for revenues in this borough so that we’re all comfortable that we’re going to be able to operate for several years, then let’s work hard to put together some policy,” Pierce said. “(We will) look at our investment policy on all dollars in this borough. We’ve been very, very conservative on the return on our investments and we’ll see how you feel about it.”

Reach Elizabeth Earl at eearl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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