A Kenai Peninsula Borough ordinance introduced by assembly member Brent Johnson would reduce the number of Borough Planning Commission members from the present 13 to nine by eliminating the requirement for the borough’s cities to have individual representatives on the commission.
The borough planning commission, a group responsible for creating and recording property boundaries and for determining legal land uses within the borough, consists of representatives from the cities of Kenai, Soldotna, Seward, Homer and Seldovia, as well as unincorporated areas and borough regions. Under Johnson’s proposal — introduced at the borough’s June 21 meeting and scheduled for a public hearing and a vote on July 26 — Homer’s commission seat will be combined with Seldovia’s and Kenai’s combined with Soldotna’s, and two regional seats will be eliminated.
Kenai and Seldovia have opposed the consolidation with unanimous council resolutions, and the mayor of Seward has written a letter against it to the borough assembly. In its July 6 meeting, the Soldotna Planning and Zoning Commission agreed to a motion to oppose the ordinance, and the Soldotna City Council added to its consent agenda a resolution to oppose it at its Wednesday meeting.
Johnson, who will be termed out of office in October after serving two three-year terms, said his proposal makes both financial and functional improvements to the planning commission.
“If you have a body that is large and everybody takes a turn talking, it just slows the process down a lot,” Johnson said.
The commission meets twice monthly in different peninsula locations, incurring transport and lodging costs in addition to commissioner stipends — creating an expense that Johnson calculated at about $6,000 per year per commissioner. He estimated his reduction would save the borough around $35,000 annually.
The commission’s members are appointed by the borough mayor, and its size is a result of both state and borough law. State code requires borough planning commissions to have a minimum of five members, and for the commission’s ratio of municipal and non-municipal members to be the same as the population ratio between municipalities and non-municipal areas of the borough.
Borough code requires that each of the borough’s first class and home rule cities have a commission representative. The borough mayor then appoints an appropriate number of representatives for other towns and regions to meet the state’s proportionality requirement.
Borough Planning Director Max Best, whom Johnson consulted when writing the ordinance and who supports the reduction, said the state’s proportionality requirement and the borough’s municipal representation requirement had created between them an expanding planning commission, driving by the peninsula’s demographic growth.
“The cities don’t grow here, traditionally, as quickly as outside the cities, because there’s more area outside the cities, and your population tends to get bigger where there’s more area,” Best said. “So you try to keep up with that apportionment, with five in the cities, so you keep chasing your tail with that other number to keep with the state statute.”
Johnson was a planning commissioner in 2002, when new population numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau caused the assembly to increase commission membership from 11 to 13. He said with data from the 2010 census, the commission should legally increase again to 15. According to that census, the combined population of the five represented cities is 19,214 and the borough population excluding those cities is 36,186 — roughly 1.8 times more. Proportionally, Johnson said, there should be ten non-municipal representatives on the commission — twice the five city representatives.
In 2011, soon after his first election to the assembly, Johnson proposed returning the commission membership to 11 by combining the seats of Seldovia and Homer and eliminating the corresponding non-municipal seat. His ordinance failed by a 3-6 vote at the assembly’s May 3, 2011 meeting.
In a letter to the assembly, Seward’s Mayor Jean Bardarson disagreed with the idea that the borough law creates an expanding number of commissioners, writing that the idea “appears to be based on another assumption, that the rate of population increase outside the cities will always outpace the rate of increase inside the cities. This may be the case as of the 2010 census, but has not always and likely will not always be the case.”
Bardarson also wrote that the ordinance creates “more division than unity,” by forcing the borough mayor to choose between appointing prospective commissioners from Seldovia or Homer, or Kenai and Soldotna, who would be in competition for one consolidated seat.
The formal protests from Kenai and Seldovia emphasize the cities’ loss of representation if their seats are consolidated with other cities. Kenai’s planning commission representative James Glendenning spoke to the Kenai City Council, encouraging them to pass a resolution introduced by council member Henry Knackstedt opposing their consolidation with Soldotna.
“Representation on the planning commission allows Kenai to weigh in on important development and economic activities inside and outside its boundaries that affect the city, and vice versa.” Glendenning said. “We affect the borough also.”
Although Kenai, as a home-rule city, is authorized to create its own plats, or property divisions, this authority is delegated from the borough and the borough planning commission gives a final approval to divisions drawn by the Kenai Planning and Zoning Commission, Glendenning said.
The borough planning commission also discussed the ordinance at its meeting on June 13 and unanimously postponed voting on whether or not to recommend its passage to the assembly.
Johnson said he had expected opposition to the ordinance, which he described as an efficiency measure.
“It’s a funny thing,” he said. “People want to cut government, and when we come up with a way to cut government without cutting services, people are opposed to that because they don’t want to be losing something.”
Megan Pacer contributed to this article. Reach Ben Boettger at firstname.lastname@example.org.