Lawton Acres to have appraisal by July 5

In an ongoing debate about a city of Kenai-owned property contested for its value as either commercial land or a wooded residential buffer, the Kenai City Council will have at least one important question answered in their next discussion on July 5 — what the property is worth.

Having a fresh appraisal value for Lawton Acres — a 16.49 acre strip of wooded land between the Kenai Spur Highway and neighborhoods along Lawton Drive, long disputed between would-be developers and residents seeking a buffer from traffic and commercial activity along the highway — will let the council vote on a proposal from council member Mike Boyle to preserve the land from development using city general funds.

Kenai has been intermittently debating development proposals on Lawton Acres since 1982, which in the past have been successfully opposed by activist residents of the nearby neighborhoods. The most recent controversy began in January when dentist Jeremy Sorhus offered to buy 4.5 acres of the strip’s east end for a dentist office.

Though the city owns Lawton Acres, it is legally dedicated to supporting the Kenai Muncipal Airport through earning sales or lease revenue, according to an agreement between Kenai and the Federal Aviation Administration, the land’s previous owners. Under this arrangement, releasing Lawton Acres from its airport obligation requires contributing its value to Kenai’s airport fund. Boyle’s proposal to do this has been hampered by debate over what the land’s value is.

Previous estimates of the land’s value have ranged from the $450,000 city-commissioned appraisal by the McSwain Group in February 2015 to the $1.44 million that realtor and Kenai Airport Commission chair Glenda Feeken gave at the council’s May 17 meeting. City Manager Paul Ostrander had asked Feeken to provide an unofficial opinion on the property’s worth based on comparable recent sales of commercial property.

Under Kenai city code, “purchasing” the land will require a new appraisal of the property, which council members authorized at their last meeting on May 17, and which Ostrander said Wednesday will be finished by the July 5 meeting. Appraisers from the McSwain Group will deliver three appraisals: one for all of Lawton Acres, one of the property Sorhus proposed to purchase, and one of the roughly 7 acres on the west end of the lot that would exclude Sorhus’ prospective lot and the Field of Flowers.

Ostrander said McSwain would be appraising the property under its current zoning as “conservation” land, a classification that would exclude its commercial development. The new appraisals will also not make adjustments for possible soil contamination in the property now known as the Field of Flowers, which oil companies used in the 1970s to practice firefighting exercises.

Boyle’s purchase ordinance was originally introduced at the May 17 council meeting and delayed until Wednesday for lack of an appraisal value for Lawton Acres. Still lacking an appraisal value, it was delayed again in a unanimous motion made by council member Henry Knackstedt.

Knackstedt also moved to refer the purchase ordinance to the Kenai Airport Commission, which Boyle described as a delay tactic. The airport commission will discuss it and hold an advisory vote at their July 13 meeting — after the July 5 meeting at which the council is scheduled to vote on it. Kenai attorney Scott Bloom said the airport commission referral wouldn’t necessarily delay the council’s scheduled July 5 vote, but could encourage council members to postpone again — this time until August 2, because the council has no second meeting scheduled in July. Boyle and council member Bob Molloy voted against referral.

If Boyle’s solution to the Lawton Acres problem fails to pass the council, another way to preserve the land — which Molloy advocated in a May 15 discussion of the issue — would be to include a city-wide vote on whether to “purchase” the land with general fund money on the October municipal election ballot.

Wednesday’s decision creates a tight timeline for putting this idea into action. Council members would have to vote to put the question on the ballot by their Aug. 2 meeting, requiring that an ordinance to do so be introduced at the previous meeting, which would again be July 5.

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

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