Borough kicks off comprehensive plan work

The Kenai Peninsula Borough is wading into the long process of revising its comprehensive plan.

The plan, which is the foundation document of reference for land use and planning decisions, was last updated in 2005. Alaska law provides for particular areawide powers for second-class boroughs, which is the category the Kenai Peninsula Borough falls into, including platting, land use and planning authority. Boroughs are also required to periodically review and update their comprehensive plans.

The plan has technically been out of date for two years — it was set out for 2005–2015, having been written in 2003–2004. Some parts of the plan haven’t changed much in the approximately 13 years since it was written, but others have changed significantly. For example, in its section on the economy, the plan details long-term sales contracts with local utility companies for natural gas from Marathon Oil Company and Unocal’s contract with Agrium. Marathon sold its assets and withdrew from Cook Inlet in 2012 and 2013, Unocal was sold to Chevron which has since withdrawn from the area and Agrium closed its facility in 2007.

In October, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly approved a $275,000 appropriation to hire a consulting firm to do the rewrite. Anchorage-based firm Agnew Beck picked up the contract and is starting in on the project, expecting to produce a draft by fall 2017 and a final plan by summer 2018, said team project manager Shelly Wade in a presentation to the assembly during a Tuesday work session.

“Really, what does all this mean?” she said. “This is your opportunity through this planning process to really think through what are the best policies through different categories that can help guide future development.”

Comprehensive plans are sprawling documents that incorporate a variety of information about boroughs, their cities, people and economies, among other topics. The borough has a variety of tools available when setting out a plan, including the chance to add to the existing six focus areas that the 2005 plan set out. Comprehensive plans also provide a legal basis for decisions made down the line, she said.

One thing Wade wanted to be clear about is that the plan does not mean the borough will start zoning.

“(Recommendations) could be a blob on a map that says, ‘We think this area is best suited for agricultural development,’ or a blob on the map that says ‘We think this area is best suited for future housing or future residential housing,’” she said. “But it is not zoning.”

The Kenai Peninsula Borough has limited planning authority outside the cities. Most of the land use regulations are based on best use of the land, such as rural residential or agricultural. Those aren’t hard and fast — specific businesses can obtain conditional use permits to operate in areas that are not designated commercial, pending the approval of the Planning Commission, for example.

So far, the borough planning department and the consultants have added a few additional topics, including borough management and administration, workforce development and health and wellness. Other cities and boroughs that Agnew Beck has worked with have added topics such as climate change, Wade said.

One thing the consultants had identified was that some of the action items, beneath the larger goals, could be strengthened or refined. The example she gave was within the items related to a goal of improving opportunities for agriculture in the borough. The plan identifies specific action items, but the rewrite could refine them more, she said.

“I think this is one area where there’s an opportunity to add some teeth to that,” she said.

The consultants will also be looking for public input throughout the process, she said. They’ve begun conducting interviews with public officials and other stakeholders around the borough, and they’ll continue doing so to gather information about the borough before updating or adding items to the 2005 plan, she said.

“What I hope this opportunity is is the opportunity to then … take a look at that 2005 plan and look at how it does not align with the intentions of residents or the intentions of leadership,” she said.

The draft plan will go out for public comment and feedback before the consultant finalizes it in 2018, Wade said.

When the assembly approved the appropriation, several members expressed concern about the cost, especially given the still-yawning budget gap at the state level and potential impacts on the borough. Assembly member Jill Schaefer asked Wade if the consultants would take the potential budget cuts into account.

Wade said they would. In their research, the consultants plan to examine the borough finances and why some of the goals from the previous plan were not accomplished, whether it was a change in direction or a shortfall in resources. The plan won’t evaluate borough government as a whole, though, she said.

“We’re not evaluating all of the departments and looking at the functionality and efficiency … at a higher level, we can probably take a look and get feedback,” she said. “It might be a recommendation to do an organizational plan that really recommends and suggests a higher level of efficiency to be able to do, say, a new land-use policy.”

The consultants plan to host a booth at the upcoming Sport, Recreation and Trade Show at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex on April 29 and 30 with a short version of conditions in the borough today, she said. They’re also kicking off a website, online survey and phone survey to gauge public opinion, she said.

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

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