The boundaries of Nikiski’s Advisory Planning Commission, as petitioned by residents. (Map via Kenai Peninsula Borough)

The boundaries of Nikiski’s Advisory Planning Commission, as petitioned by residents. (Map via Kenai Peninsula Borough)

Assemby split on Nikiski land group scope

A tied vote killed efforts to reduce the geographic area of Nikiski’s advisory planning commission

A split Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly on Tuesday defeated legislation that would make smaller the area overseen by a Nikiski planning group. The ordinance will be reconsidered at the body’s Feb. 21 meeting.

Assembly members last fall approved the creation of an advisory planning commission for Nikiski. The borough’s advisory planning commissions offer local comments on issues that the borough planning commission will vote on. That could include platting, permitting and certain legislative issues.

As Nikiski residents went through the petition process associated with the creation of an advisory planning commission, one consideration was whether the boundaries of the commission area should include communities on the west side of Cook Inlet, such as Tyonek and Beluga.

Proponents for the inclusion of west side communities said the boundaries more closely align with other Nikiski’s other service areas, while those opposed said a smaller area more closely aligns with the borough’s other advisory planning commissions.

After assembly members approved the commission with a larger area, the borough received a letter from Tyonek Native Corporation CEO Stephen Peskosky and Native Village of Tyonek President Johann Bartels, which said the corporation was not consulted during the petition process despite being the largest private landowner in the area.

“Our people have been promoting and protecting our resources while pursuing economic development far earlier than the establishment of Nikiski or any of the area homesteads,” the letter says. “In other words, we have been exercising self-determination and planning functions independently for centuries. We have been performing our own land use planning, land management, and economic development — the same functions as APCs. These efforts are current, proactive, and impactful to our community.”

At more than 3.5 million acres, the area included in the boundaries of the Nikiski group as approved by assembly members is more than four times the size of the borough’s other group areas combined. Even if the boundaries were reduced to exclude the west side of Cook Inlet, the commission would still have the largest acreage of any other borough commission by more than 44,000 acres.

The legislation considered by assembly members Tuesday would have reduced the acreage to the smaller alternative, which covers more than 300,000 acres.

The ordinance, sponsored by assembly members Brent Johnson, Cindy Ecklund and Mike Tupper, cites the objection of the Tyonek Native Corporation and the Native Village of Tyonek in proposing the change, as well as the fact that no residents from outside the smaller boundaries applied to be on the commission.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough’s Planning Commission, both when the assembly approved the creation of the commission and with regard to the ordinance considered Tuesday, voiced its support for the smaller geographic area.

Assembly members ultimately voted 4-4 on the ordinance, which meant the legislation failed. Assembly member Brent Hibbert was absent. Ecklund moved to reconsider the ordinance at the assembly’s Feb. 21 meeting. If all assembly members attend the Feb. 21 meeting, nine votes will be cast on the reconsideration.

Kenai Peninsula Borough Acting Planning Director Samantha Lopez wrote in a Jan. 12 memo to assembly members that the borough planning commission recommended that the area be reduced.

Members of the Nikiski Advisory Planning Commission testified in support of the larger area during Tuesday’s meeting.

Commissioner Kelly Brewer, of Nikiski, told assembly members that people frequently recreate on the west side of Cook Inlet. She said she owns a lodge on the west side of Cook Inlet, and said commissioners have the background knowledge needed to make informed decisions to the borough.

“It’s an area we are very familiar with,” Brewer said. “It’s really our backyard. We’ve been playing there, working there and taking care of the west side interests for very many, many years.”

Lenora Niessen, who also sits on the Nikiski Advisory Planning Commission, said restricting the existing boundaries to the Nikiski side of Cook Inlet is “like ripping the Kenai River out of the middle of Kenai.”

“The middle of that inlet is where our economy is, and it’s effectively cutting us off from our economy,” Niessen said of the smaller area.

The letter from the Native Village of Tyonek and the Tyonek Native Corporation, however, says the west side of Cook Inlet is outside of Nikiski’s “area of influence,” as described by petitioners. Despite being included in Nikiski fire service, senior service and recreation areas, the authors say services provided to west side communities “pale in comparison” to those provided to Nikiski. The group also points out that no petitioners are from the west side.

“Tyonek was not asked, and does not support, the Nikiski petition and KPB adoption of the ‘Nikiski Area’ APC,” the letter says. “It stands against reason and logic to approve such an ill-conceived and underinformed planning area.”

Assembly members were split on the issue.

Assembly member Bill Elam, who ultimately voted against the ordinance, questioned how the existing boundaries directly impact Tyonek and asked whether the assembly would make future considerations for communities who don’t want to be included in such groups. Assembly Vice President Tyson Cox countered that Funny River planning commission in Elam’s assembly district is bounded in a comparable way to the north by a river.

“All that’s separating them is a river,” Cox said. “We’re not talking an inlet, we’re not talking any vast amount of space, we’re talking a river. But it’s enough that those people feel that they’re different from the other area.”

Assembly member Richard Derkevorkian pushed back, saying that Funny River was “a completely different situation.” He said a west side business owner wants to be in the APC and that the Tyonek letter was only signed by two people.

“I see two signatures on there,” Derkevorkian said. “So, to me, we have two people saying that they’re opposed to this and, in the crowd, we have significantly more people testifying that they’re in favor of APC as it is today.”

Assembly President Brent Johnson responded that the signatures come from the heads of two entities, the Native Village of Tyonek and the Tyonek Native Corporation, which represent a large number of people. Unlike people who may recreate in west side communities, Johnson said Tyonek residents, like their ancestors, live there year-round.

“I believe in local government and that government should conform to the people that live in an area more than anything else,” Johnson said. “These are the people that live in this area.”

Tuesday’s full assembly meeting can be streamed on the borough’s website at kpb.leigstar.com.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.

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