The Kenai City Council may vote on whether to buy Lawton Acres — a 16.49 acre strip of wooded land between the Kenai Spur Highway and neighborhoods along Lawton Drive, long a subject of dispute between would-be developers and residents seeking a buffer from traffic and commercial activity — at its June 21 meeting. Depending on the cost of appraisal, however, the property’s value may be unknown, causing the ordinance to be delayed until July.
On June 7 council member Mike Boyle introduced an ordinance to make the purchase. If purchased, Boyle’s ordinance states that “in perpetuity, the use of the property shall be restricted for public park (and) recreation,” fulfilling the wishes of some nearby residents who have campaigned against developing the lot. Since the late 1980s, activists in the area have opposed development of the property, fearing it would bring more noise, light, and traffic to the neighborhood. The most recent proposal is from dentist Jeremy Sorhus, seeking to buy 4.5 acres of property’s east end for a dental office.
Though the city owns Lawton Acres, preserving it from development under city ownership will require the city to “buy” it from the airport fund, which it is legally dedicated to support. In 1963 the Federal Aviation Administration granted Kenai about 1,800 acres of land — including Lawton Acres — that were previously part of the military airfield that covered much of Kenai during the 1940s and 1950s, under the condition that this land support the Kenai Municipal airport either through direct aviation use or financially through sales and lease revenue.
The agreement contributed to the 5,057 acres the city presently owns, making Kenai’s municipal government the second-largest owner of land within the city’s boundary (the state of Alaska is the first) but also entangling it in many long-running disputes over land use and value.
As in many of these cases, the Lawton Acres controversy is complicated by uncertainty over the property’s worth. A city-commissioned appraisal from February 2015 compared Lawton Acres to five then-recent commercial sales to put its value at $450,000, a price which some members of the public and Kenai council members have said is far below the commercial value of similar land.
Kenai City Manager Paul Ostrander requested an new opinion of the property’s value from realtor Glenda Feeken, who is also chair of Kenai’s Airport Commission. Ostrander wrote in a memo to the council that Feeken’s opinion “is intended to provide additional information during the decision-making process” and isn’t the price the city would pay, which Kenai code requires to be set by a new appraisal.
Feeken’s analysis put a price of $1.44 million for the entire 16.49 acres of Lawton Acres by comparing it to 15 local properties sold in the past year. Feeken also put a value of $540,000 on the 4.5 acres Sorhus wants to buy.
In past discussions about preserving Lawton Acres, one question has been the fairness of using money from the city’s general fund — which collects the majority of its revenue from city-wide sales and property taxes — to pay for a buffer that will benefit a specific neighborhood. Council member Henry Knackstedt said he’d calculated that at Feeken’s estimated value, paying for Lawton Acres out of the city’s general fund would cost an equivalent of $634 per Kenai household.
“Everyone in the city would be paying it equally, from VIP to Thompson Park,” Knackstedt said.
Boyle said Feeken’s opinion was an attempt “to hamstring” the sales ordinance by discouraging the required appraisal.
“This is someone’s opinion,” Boyle said. “Not someone who was licensed to do this, either. This person who did this obviously has interest in selling land, because she’s a real estate agent. … It may be worth a million and a half — I doubt it — but because there’s toxics in the ground there, it may be worth $25 worth of beads.”
The possible toxins Boyle referred to are the potential residue left by fire training exercises oil companies conducted in the 1960s and 1970s on the section of Lawton Acres that’s now the Kenai Field of Flowers. Whether or not that ground is actually contaminated by chemicals released from burnt objects, or to what extent, is speculative, Kenai City Attorney Scott Bloom said. He told council members he was unaware of any soil sampling or testing that had taken place there. Neither Feeken’s opinion nor the 2015 appraisal considered the possibility of ground contamination.
Alongside introducing his ordinance for purchasing the property, Boyle called for a council vote to authorize a fresh appraisal of Lawton Acres.
“It is my understanding that an appraisal can be accomplished by June 19, 2017,” Boyle wrote in a memo attached to his purchase ordinance. “This would allow the Council to know the purchase price of the property prior to voting on enactment of this Ordinance at Council’s June 21, 2017 meeting.”
Kenai City attorney Scott Bloom said he had contacted McSwain Associates, the group that performed the 2015 appraisal, whose representative told him the appraisal could be performed by that time “if they rush” for a low estimate of $3,800.
Council members Tim Navarre and Glenese Pettey said they favored postponing the vote on the required appraisal until after the vote on whether or not to purchase the property. Boyle disagreed. Asked by Kenai Mayor Brian Gabriel whether the matter is time-sensitive, Boyle said it was, “because there are people interested in following through, in another avenue, if this fails, and they have deadlines. There are certain members of the public who want to see this happen, and if this doesn’t work, they are prepared to take other steps.”
Council member Bob Molloy — who also favors city preservation of Lawton Acres — has previously spoken of putting a proposal to buy the property on the October municipal election ballot. The Aug. 2 city council meeting is the deadline for council members to vote on whether or not to include proposals in the October ballot. Residents of the Lawton Acres neighborhoods have also speculated on the possibility of buying the property via a local improvement district or some other mechanism.
Navarre said Boyle’s move to complete the property valuation by the June 21 meeting was “providing an appraisal for a special interest group.”
“If in fact, the council votes this (Boyle’s purchase ordinance) down, they’ll have this information which the city would have paid for, to move on their particular initiative,” Navarre said.
Knackstedt favored having three assessments done — one for the land Sorhus seeks to buy, and one for the remainder of Lawton Acres minus the Field of Flowers, and one for the entire 16.49-acre strip — and presented at the council’s meeting on July 5. He said he wouldn’t vote to purchase all of Lawton Acres without knowing what the alternative options are worth.
“My concern is having all the numbers so we can consider all the possibilities of what we might need to do,” Knackstedt said. “… I need all the data to make an informed decision, and only having part of it, I can’t do that.”
Knackstedt later moved, sucessfully, to have Bloom order the assessments if their total cost is less than $9,000 — Kenai code allows administrators to spend up to $10,000 without seeking a bid — and to present the results of the assessment at the July 5 meeting. If the cost is more than $9,000, Bloom said he would bring McSwain’s cost estimates and completion dates for the council to decide on at the June 21 meeting.
Molloy pointed out that the motion as passed allows a possible scenario — in which the cost of all three appraisals exceed $9,000 — in which there is no appraisal of the whole Lawton Acres property by June 21, when Boyle’s purchase ordinance is scheduled to be voted on. This would make the ordinance impossible to vote on because the cost of the property will be unknown, postponing the ordinance by default to the July 5 meeting. He voted against Knackstedt’s motion, as did Boyle and Pettey.
Reach Ben Boettger at email@example.com.