The four-story Dragseth Mansion, which the Kenai municipal government sold on Wednesday to the transportation and contraction company PRL Logistics for $825,000, sits on Kenai’s south beach Friday, May 19, 2017 in Kenai. A concrete barrier blocks the southern end of a city-owned airstrip that PRL is also seeking to buy from Kenai, requiring a permit from the Kenai Planning and Zoning Commission that will be discussed May 24. The airstrip parallels the beach alongside the Kenai River flats, valuable habitat for migratory birds, prompting concern from birders and bird advocacy groups. (Ben Boettger/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai sells mansion, will consider airstrip sale

The four-story, 7,556-square foot mansion on Kenai’s south beach belongs to the transportation and contracting company PRL Logistics, after the Kenai City Council unanimously sold it for $825,000 at their meeting on Wednesday.

PRL now plans to buy a nearby airstrip running north of the mansion alongside wetlands that host migratory birds, prompting bird conservation advocates to ask questions about the company’s plans for it.

Kenai bought the mansion — known as the Dragseth mansion after its builders, Marvin and Rosetta “Sis” Dragseth — in September 2015 as part of a land acquisition to build an access road to the south beach. The gravel-surfaced road was finished in early 2016. The $825,000 earned from the mansion’s sale may go toward paving the road.

The mansion is a short distance away from PRL’s existing Cook Inlet Operations Center and Cannery Lodge accommodation and club. According to the sale ordinance, it will be used for office space, lodging, event hosting, and a restaurant and bar.

Council members unanimously approved the mansion sale.

The Dragseths built and used the airstrip running north from their mansion, paralleling the adjacent beach for approximately 2,700 feet. PRL is seeking to buy the airstrip to allow clients and Cannery Lodge guests to land fixed-wing planes in addition to the helicopters that already use the PRL’s nearby helipad. PRL can back out of the mansion purchase if unable to buy the airstrip.

Council members were also unanimous in allowing PRL to use the airstrip in exception to a 2000 ordinance that prohibits vehicle traffic through the sensitive dune environment surrounding it. The ordinance covers the southern river mouth and the north beach east of Forest Drive, an area in which the ordinance text states that “the vegetation, including beach grass… is necessary to maintain a stable and healthy beach environment.” The exemption for PRL allows aircraft only on the runway itself and will be in effect for a year. It preserves the beach portion of the airstrip property for public access.

Council member Henry Knackstedt, a long-time local pilot, estimated the airstrip has been in intermittent use during the 40 years he’s flown in Kenai. He said he’d flown over the strip recently and seen tracks where vehicles have driven over the dunes and on to the airstrip, despite the prohibition. Though the airstrip is presently blocked by concrete barriers, Ostrander said that vehicle access “would certainly be more controlled under private ownership than it has been to date under the city’s ownership.”

The airstrip is on property that belonged to the city before the city bought the mansion.

“Although it’s been used by aircraft for landing, and prior owners of the property have done some limited maintenance, it’s always been a trespass airstrip on city property that’s never been recognized by the city as an airstrip officially,” said Kenai City Attorney Scott Bloom. “It’s been a trespass issue the city’s taken the time to address.”

Once in private hands and exempted from the dune traffic prohibition, the airstrip will have to clear one more hurdle before it’s legal to use. It’s located in a rural residential zone where airstrips aren’t allowed by default, requiring a conditional use permit from the Kenai Planning and Zoning Commission, which will discuss and vote on it at their May 24 meeting.

Council member Bob Molloy said the mansion purchase and the airstrip permitting has been “a fast-moving situation” and asked for more detail about PRL’s planned operations at the airstrip. Ostrander said that PRL will likely be required to submit a more detailed plan as part of their planning and zoning permit.

Birds

On Friday, birding enthusiast Ken Tarbox led a group of participants in this week’s Kenai Peninsula Birding Festival on a trip to south beach to watch the migratory flocks that feed and breed on the Kenai River flats, north of the mansion. Nearby, the airstrip ran through the grassy area between the beach and the wetlands of the flats.

In a May 2 letter to the city council, Tarbox wrote that 180 species of birds have been observed in the area, and that the summer gull colony on the flats can reach 30,000 birds. Tarbox recommended that the council take more time to evaluate and discuss the proposal, including in his letter 12 specific questions about PRL’s plans for using the airstrip, and the possible effects on the bird population.

“Reviewing the sale rationale it is hard for one to justify this sale when two major airports offer infrastructure, landing, and takeoff space, safety standards and procedures that protect the public and the environment,” Tarbox wrote to Ostrander. “The proposed airstrip does not provide the same level of service and protection and threatens a critical habitat area.”

Tarbox said that if the south beach airstrip is used, he would advocate for seasonal restrictions to close it or to create extra cautions during the peak bird period between April and November. He said he isn’t necessarily opposed to sale of the airstrip, but is trying to inform Kenai officials about “the tradeoffs they have to make with the other benefits they think they’ll get from this project.”

The Alaska chapter of the Audubon Society, a bird conservation advocacy group, also wrote to Ostrander with concerns, stating that it had identified the Kenai River flats as a Continental Important Bird Area — a designation it gives based on criteria including the variety of species concentrated in an area and the percentage of a region’s migratory bird population that passes through it. According to the Audubon letter, the Kenai flats “can support nearly the entire population of Wrangell Island Snow Geese during spring migration” — up to 6,500 snow geese per day.

If air traffic increases above the flats, Tarbox said the disturbance could unnecessarily tire the birds in the area.

“When they’re coming into the flats, their energy reserves are exhausted,” Tarbox said. “Because some of them have flown 500 to 1,000 miles overnight to get here. So when they set down they’ve got to eat, and they don’t want to expend any additional energy. If anything disturbs them and gets them up in a flight response, they use up those energy reserves and can’t recover fast enough, and that can decrease breeding success when they get to their final destination or on the flats.”

In a May 17 letter to Ostrander, PRL founder and CEO Ron Hyde wrote that he’d met with Tarbox after reading his questions, and the two had visited the airstrip and talked for several hours.

“The airstrip is located within the currently established flight path of the Kenai Municipal Airport and it is our opinion that that operations of this airstrip would not incur any more risk than aircraft operating out of the Kenai Airport,” Hyde wrote to Ostrander.

He wrote that PRL and its clients would use the Dragseth airstrip “as done historically, on an ad-hoc basis,” which he “did not expect to occur regularly or frequently.”

As for the airship which PRL plans to operate out of its south beach property — expected in 2019 at the earliest — Hyde wrote that its presence on the airstrip “would be light, sporadic use for ancillary support activities, not key to our daily operations.”

The airship would spend most of its time working in remote areas rather than at the Kenai base, and if working on a more local project, would approach above Cook Inlet rather than the flats, using its vertical take-off and landing ability to descend directly into land PRL currently owns, Hyde wrote.

Reach Ben Boettger at ben.boettger@peninsulaclarion.com.

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