Excavation project near Kenai River shot down

On Wednesday Kenai’s seven Planning and Zoning Commissioners unanimously denied a permit for a project along the Kenai River that the applicant — Dr. Lavern Davidhizer — described as a pair of ponds and that opponents and Kenai Planning staff referred to as a gravel pit.

Davidhizer, a physician at Soldotna’s Family Medical Clinic, applied in July 2017 for a permit to extract material from 52.7 acres of vacant land he owns on the Kenai River bank around river mile 12. The property, off Silver Salmon drive, is zoned residential and sits downhill of neighborhoods along Chinook Drive and Kenaitze Court.

Davidhizer planned to dig two 20-foot deep pits from the property with an estimated total surface area of 62,067 square yards. He planned to deposit the overburden in the site’s uplands areas and take the gravel to other property he owns, said Jason Foster, who represented Davidhizer at the Wednesday meeting.

Foster, who owns North Star Paving, said his company wasn’t contracted to work on the project. His connection was that Davidhizer had bought the land from Foster’s parents, who had planned to build a subdivision there.

Davidhizer intended to do this work over three winters using an ice road to access the site, according to the plan Davidhizer submitted to the Kenai Planning Department.

Soon after he applied for the material extraction permit, Davidhizer’s plans drew concern from neighbors worried about views and property values, as well as conservation groups worried about wetland damage and the possibility of the Kenai River flowing into the ponds and altering its path. Action, however, was delayed. The Planning and Zoning commissioners deemed Davidhizer’s application incomplete on Oct. 11, 2017 — requiring him to map the land’s post-excavation topography, have its soil sampled, and to check whether the Army Corps of Engineers (which regulates wetland filling) or the Alaska Department of Transportation require permits for the work.

After Davidhizer submitted new documents to the Kenai Planning Department in May and June 2018 — including an April 26 letter from Army Corps acting Southeast Section Chief Randal Vigil stating that his “proposed project would not involve an activity we regulate” — the Planning and Zoning commissioners reconsidered the application Wednesday in a meeting that filled the council chamber.

Those who testified all opposed the project. Many were Chinook Drive and Kenaitze Court residents who said a large part of their property values depend on the view from their homes, and this value would be destroyed by excavation beneath them.

Kenai code requires excavators to either be hidden from roads and inhabited areas by natural screening or to build fences to block the view. Davidhizer’s application hadn’t included a fence, and the existing vegitation did not block the view from Kenaitze Court or Chinook Drive, Kenai City Planner Elizabeth Appleby concluded in her report.

“Even if all trees surrounding the pond were left in place and the applicant sucessfully used an ice road, these residences would still directly overlook the excavation,” her report states.

As for ecological effects, representatives of the Kenai River Special Management Area, the Kenai Watershed Forum, and Cook Inletkeeper testified against the project Wednesday.

Though Davidhizer’s proposed excavation is outside the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s 50-foot river-bordering protection area, Floodplain Administrator Bryr Harris of the Kenai River Center wrote that his agency was still concerned about “a real possibility of inundations of those ponds and the surrounding lowlands, the result of which could be significant erosion, including the possible washout of the land between the ponds and the river.”

The Kenai River Special Management Area advisory board also lacks jurisdiction over the project — their area is only the river itself — but decided to oppose it in October 2017. KRSMA vice chair Joe Connors spoke Wednesday.

“We do not believe the potential for ponds becoming part of the Kenai River through erosion, flooding, and natural river realignment has been accorded any weight,” Connors said. “The site is next to the Kenai River, and natural flooding and unstable soil conditions need to be considered.”

Such an incident took place on the Anchor River during a 2002 flood, according to Kenai Watershed Forum Executive Director Jack Sinclair, who spoke at the meeting about his organization’s 2011 restoration of that site. After an abandoned gravel pit within 100 feet of the Anchor’s south fork flooded, it pulled the river from its channel, released sediment, and created a braided stream system.

Wetlands were another concern.

“As you go further up, you see how urbanized the river’s become,” Sinclair said. “Those contigous wetlands adjacent to the river, those are called high-value wetlands. They’re directly adjacent and they feed direct nutrients and they produce protected cool waters that are flowing directly into the Kenai River as well… The Davidhizer property is directly affected by this high value wetland. I’d say that once this is gone, another one of those rare high-value wetlands is going to be gone forever.”

Kenai City Code has eleven requirements for surface extraction permits, ten of which applied to Davidhizer’s project — the eleventh, requiring applicants to specify how much land they’ll clear, went into effect after Davidhizer’s submission and didn’t apply to it, Appleby said. The project met two of the remaining ten conditions while others “were not possible to evaluate without guessing because the application neglected to provide detailed information despite the direction of the Planning and Zoning Commission and additional time given to the applicant,” Appleby wrote in her report, which recommended denying the permit.

After the commission unanimously turned the permit down, Planning and Zoning commissioner Gary Greenberg said he thought it “was mostly not approved for technical reasons.” Greenberg, owner of the geographic information system consultancy Alaska Map Company, pointed out that Davidhizar’s application used maps from the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s online parcel viewer — a system meant to show property assessment rather than planning or engineering use — with the proposed ponds draw on by hand, having different shapes and boundaries in different maps.

Greenberg was among the commissioners and public speakers who advocated for an update to Kenai’s gravel pit code.

“I think the gravel pit code was written in a time when it was impossible to actually create things like contours and some of these measurements without actually going into the field,” Greenberg said. “The past ten years or so we’ve had Google Earth and stuff like the borough parcel viewer that provide things that seem to meet the code, but they don’t really meet the intent of like a gravel pit, because nobody’s been to site and measured it. It’s like, ‘can you believe everything you read on the internet?’”

Kenai resident Kristine Schmidt told the Planning and Zoning commissioners at the end of the meeting that she’d seen other gravel pit applications be approved despite provoking similar concerns about residential disturbance.

“I think that has to do with how your gravel pit ordinance is written, and I think it would be better if it were more comprehensive to address some of the things you said were missing tonight,” Schmidt said.

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