Assembly approves sale of land in Seward floodplain

After a prolonged debate and opposition from the borough administration and the Planning Commission, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly approved the sale of a small piece of land in Seward to a private resident.

Seward resident Dean Carl first put in notice of his interest to buy the land in 1994, and recently asked again because he wants to use the land to build a safer driveway to access his property. The borough-owned plot, at about mile 3.7 of the Seward Highway just outside the city of Seward, stretches about 100 feet along the roadway and 183 feet back off the road, with Carl’s property just to the south. The borough owns three adjacent parcels there, and the negotiated sale would be the front 183 feet of one of them.

The reason for the contention arose from one of the Seward area’s flood mitigation plans — the borough’s All-Hazard Mitigation Plan. The plan, finalized in April 2010, contains segments specific to each city, discourages development within floodplains. Floods are frequent in Seward and the surrounding area, which is built on gravelly soil deposited by rivers and creeks, a formation known as an alluvial fan.

“The magnitude of the flooding Seward has been historically high,” the plan states. “Debris and surge-release flooding will continue to be a problem due to the topography and traditional weather patterns of the area.”

The sale of a property for development within the mapped floodplain area goes against one of the mitigation provisions of that plan. When assembly member Kenn Carpenter first brought forward the proposal for the sale, former borough mayor Mike Navarre’s administration opposed it. Borough planner Max Best reiterated the administration’s concerns, though he said he hadn’t had the chance to discuss it at length with new borough mayor Charlie Pierce, who’s been on the job three weeks.

“We felt we could accomplish the safety aspect by providing an easement for the driveway,” he said. “We don’t feel that, without property mitigation, this is something we can support.”

The whole east side of the highway is a mapped floodplain, which descends into a floodway. Best clarified that building in the floodway is inadvisable, while people build in floodplains more frequently as long as they comply with the permit requirements, such as elevating buildings and installing the required vent coverings.

Carl said he is planning to build a house on the land he owns now and only wants to purchase the neighboring borough land to build a longer driveway further north on the highway. Currently, the driveway accesses the highway just north of a guardrail and immediately across the highway from the Pit Bar, a popular bar in the Seward area. The original proposal was to sell him 60 feet of the highway, but Carpenter amended it to 100 feet. The more land included, the further up the highway the driveway will be, Carl said.

“My driveway is at the north end of the guardrail … and when you turn into my driveway, especially at night, you’re always wondering when you’re going to tear the side out of your truck or car,” he said. “Also, all the accidents that happen in front of the Pit Bar — I’ve seen a few of them. This would put my driveway at the far north end of their property. It puts it in more view. You cannot see my driveway from down the highway.”

Carpenter, who represents Seward, said he saw it as a public safety issue. The Seward Highway is the sole ground access in and out of Seward, and the risk of accidents is high with vehicles coming in and out of Carl’s driveway. He asserted that the property has not flooded in any of the recent flood events, Carl has met all the borough’s requirements and that moving the driveway will contribute to public safety.

“I feel strongly that we should sell this piece of property to him,” he said. “It’s not going to do me any good except that it’s going to make that driveway a lot safer … if he develops it, which he can, he can bring it up to the level that’s requested by the borough.”

The borough Planning Commission recommended denial by unanimous consent, in large part because of flooding concerns on the property, while the Seward/Bear Creek Flood Service Area supported it. The sole public comment came from Seward resident Ron Long, who asked the assembly to approve it to remedy a public safety concern.

Several assembly members said they had issues with contradicting the Planning Commission’s recommendation as well. Assembly member Willy Dunne voted against the sale, saying his opposition primarily stemmed from the commission’s opposition.

“I’m not strongly opposed to this but I think we should not take lightly the planning commission’s decision against it, and it does appear that a solution could be obtained with an easement rather than a sale,” he said.

Carpenter said because the driveway will use the property anyway and the borough would have to pay to create the easement, it makes more sense to sell the property and get it on the tax rolls.

Carl said he bought his current property in 2005 and has two creeks running through the back yard cutting him off from another two acres, leaving him with about a quarter of an acre at the front usable for development. Most of that has been used up and there’s simply no room for a longer driveway, he said.

The assembly passed the ordinance 8-1, with Dunne voting against it.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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