Assembly reduces Planning Commission membership

The number of Kenai Peninsula Borough Planning Commission members will decrease to 11, but not until 2020.

After initially voting it down, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly resurrected and passed an ordinance that revised the apportionment for Planning Commission membership at its Tuesday meeting. The commission, which approves or denies plats and advises the assembly on land use issues, currently has 13 members. After July 31, 2020, it will have a maximum of 11.

Assembly member Brent Johnson originally proposed the ordinance to address a code violation — the Planning Commission is out of compliance with state statute. There should technically be 15 members if all areas were represented as state statute requires but 15 seemed excessive to Johnson. As the borough population outside the cities grows, the number of planning commissioners would also keep increasing to stay in compliance. He originally proposed knocking the membership down to nine, the same number as the assembly, and combined the city seats for Homer and Seldovia.

However, the city governments for the borough’s five incorporated cities — Homer, Kenai, Seldovia, Seward and Soldotna — formally objected. Johnson’s original ordinance would have combined several city seats and by dint of population size likely have eliminated representation for Seldovia, a home-rule city with approximately 250 year-round residents.

After assembly discussion, Borough Mayor Mike Navarre proposed a substitute ordinance that would knock down membership to 11 people at the most. Only one member would be allowed from each of the cities unless the population required it, and no home rule or first class city can have more than one member more than any other home rule or first class city, according to the ordinance.

The assembly originally shot down the substitute at the Sept. 20 meeting in Homer. Assembly member Gary Knopp asked for a reconsideration at the Oct. 11 meeting. Johnson said at the Tuesday meeting that he appreciated the mayor’s substitute for the original proposal.

“I will just reiterate this is a responsible way to cut government where the people don’t lose services, and it doesn’t eliminate the possibility that any city can get a planning commissioner,” Johnson said. “The possibility still exists in this ordinance, and I very much appreciate that approach.”

Several members changed their minds this time.

Assembly members Dale Bagley, Brandii Holmdahl and Kelly Cooper changed their minds and voted for the substitute ordinance. Cooper said she originally voted against it because of the objection from Homer but saw the need to be in compliance with state code and so would change her vote.

“I am going to support the amended ordinance because we are out of compliance,” she said. “I can’t ignore that away. We have until 2020, there is nothing that prevents us from adjusting this as we need to. I’m going to assume that we will approve (new commissioners) appropriately.”

Eliminating two planning commissioners would reduce their travel costs and stipends, the amount varying depending on where the person was from — a commissioner from Seldovia costs more because of the higher cost to cross Kachemak Bay and reach Soldotna for each meeting. The borough administration estimated the change would save about $30,000 annually.

Some of the original opposition has eroded. The Kenai City Council reversed its position to take a “neutral” one on the mayor’s substitute. Seldovia’s City Council submitted a revised letter saying the council members were still concerned about the lack of representation, but suggested term limits for Planning Commission members with a rotating system between first class and home-rule cities.

Others stayed the same: Soldotna’s Planning and Zoning Commission, the city of Homer and the Planning Commission still voted not to support it, and assembly member Willy Dunne — who represents District 9, which includes Seldovia — maintained his opposition.

Assembly member Stan Welles, who rejoined the assembly for the first time since May after an absence because of medical treatment, voted against it. He said he was concerned about he lack of representation for Seldovia, the at-large appointments for the non-city representatives and the possible incorporation of Nikiski, which would change the apportionment for cities. He said he favored an idea proposed by Planning Commissioner Paulette Carluccio from Seldovia, in which representation from first class and home rule cities would rotate. He said he was still in favor of reducing the size of the commission but not by the method in the ordinance.

“The other beauty about her system is that it has a de-facto built-in term limit aspect to it,” Welles said.

Johnson said the unincorporated communities can form advisory planning commissions to meet on their own land-use issues and make recommendations to the borough’s Planning Commission.

“Each member of the Planning Commission represents the whole borough,” he said.

“It’s actually a well put together system. No wonder it’s been in existence for a long, long time.”

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

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