Kenai city planner to return south

In summer 2014 Matt Kelley came from a county planner’s office in California to become Kenai’s city planner. In February he’ll be returning to county-level planning in California.

Kelley, who has lead prospective developers through the city planning department’s approval process for three years, will have his last day at Kenai city hall on Feb. 7 before he and his wife move closer to family.

“I’ve got to work with a lot of good people here at the city, at the borough, and statewide,” Kelley said. “It’s been enjoyable. We’re definitely going to miss it.”

Kelley, a native of the San Francisco Bay area who worked as a planner for three northern California county governments before coming to Kenai, will be working soon as a planner for California’s Nevada County — population 98,764 as of the 2010 census.

One particular experience in Kenai gives him a foretaste of what may be coming in his new job: as Kenai was creating municipal regulations for the newly-legal cannabis business in January 2016, Kelley kept track of how four cannabis business types would be allowed or disallowed across the 16 zoning districts of Kenai’s land use table. He’s since compiled several reports for the Kenai Planning and Zoning Commission on the city’s first legal marijuana establishments.

In California, he’ll likely be dealing with more cannabis industry permitting — recreational marijuana became legal in California on the first of this month, and one research firm has predicted cannabis sales there could reach $3.7 billion by the end of the year. In early January a 16-member panel began drafting marijuana regulations for Nevada County, according to the local newspaper The Union.

Kelley’s previous experiences in California also translated well to Kenai, he said. His last job before heading north was as a coastal planner for Mendocino County, California. Both regions, he said, “have high bluffs, both tidal-influenced, and you have development that’s right on the bluff, so you have similar things like bluff stabilization, and bluff setbacks are a big thing, here and there — how far back you’re going to build the house from the bluff based on bluff retreat.”

Though California’s statewide coastal zone and dedicated permit for coastal construction don’t have analogs in Alaska, Kelley said he dealt with similar issues in Kenai’s coastal erosion work. Soon after his arrival, a proposal for the Shoreline Heights subdivision, on the Cook Inlet bluff-top of northwest Kenai, was just appearing before the Planning and Zoning Commission. Coastal issues such as erosion also appeared in the Alaska Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation’s more recent city application to expand the Eagle Rock boat launch, he said.

For the most part, Kelley said, the work he did in California and the work he did in Kenai — measuring proposed development against city code and writing staff reports for the Kenai Planning and Zoning Commission’s permitting decisions — weren’t so different.

“Planning is unique in that wherever you are as a planner it’s kind of similar: you have zoning codes, you’ve got a comprehensive plan, and how you go about implementing those is the same wherever you’re at,” Kelley said. “I don’t think there are major differences.”

Outside of work, Kelley said one memory he’ll take from the peninsula is his arrival in July 2014 — after he and his wife spent six or seven days driving up the Alaska Highway in a U-Haul truck, they got to town right in the middle of that summer’s personal use dip net fishery.

“We had never seen something like that before, so it was interesting to learn about it, and to participate once we became residents,” Kelley said. “Being from California, there’s nothing like that.”

Reach Ben Boettger at

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