New Kenai Planner emphasizes listening, balance

Elizabeth Appleby, who became Kenai’s new city planner on April 9, said she’s practiced the skills of listening to and balancing different interests through her past work as an environmental permitting consultant for Alaska megaprojects including the Donlin Gold mine and the Alaska LNG project.

In mid-March Appleby was hired to replace Kenai’s former city planner Matt Kelley, who held the position from September 2014 to February 2018, when he returned to his native California to work as a planner for Nevada County. Appleby has taken over Kelley’s former duties of measuring proposed development projects against Kenai city code and recommending permit conditions to the Kenai Planning and Zoning Commission.

Though she’s lived in Anchorage for the past four years, Appleby grew up a short drive north of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She earned a bachelor’s degree in conservation biology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and in 2008 made her first trip to Alaska as a seasonal worker at the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, where she ran a children’s educational program. Her first experience in municipal planning was a 2012 summer internship for the Matanuska-Susitna Borough in Palmer, a town she likened to Kenai.

“I think people live here because they like the small town atmosphere, but they also want to see some economic development and things that make it a nice place to live without losing that small town character,” she said.

While finishing her master’s degree in urban and regional planning at the University of Minnesota, Appleby worked part-time for the engineering consultancy URS, a company she joined full-time in 2014. Part of her job was to collect and compile comments from federal agencies, local governments, and the public on the environmental permitting of proposed projects. Appleby said she “got comfortable listening to people, whether they were in business or environmental groups — the whole spectrum, because I think my job as a planner to listen to all those voices and achieve a vision for the community.”

One project she worked on was the planned Donlin Gold mine in western Alaska’s Yukon-Kuskokwim region.

“I heard a lot of voices from the community saying this will bring jobs, this will help preserve our culture and heritage as Alaska Native people,” Appleby said of the comments she collected for Donlin Gold’s environmental impact statement, which the Army Corps of Engineers is scheduled to release on Friday. “And I’d hear the opposite: this will affect our subsistence lifestyle, it’s going to bring money into the community and people will spend it on things we don’t want to see, like alcohol. … It was my job to organize meetings and listen to comments people made at the meetings, or wrote in, and incorporate them into the Environmental Impact Statement so it reflected what people were saying.”

She did similar work at a public meeting in Nikiski, when her firm was contracted by the Alaska LNG pipeline project around 2016 — before the project was under the management of the state-owned Alaska Gasline Development Corporation.

“I’d hear about the jobs and the economic opportunities, but then there’s also concerns about everything from road maintenance to school attendance, water well usage, if it would affect set-net fishing on the beaches,” Appleby said. “That prepared me to hear things from all sides, and it gave me insight into the LNG project, since I went a lot of places along the proposed route … I got to hear a lot of different voices.”

Appleby said she applied for the job with Kenai because “it would allow me to do more community planning.”

“While I was a consultant, I worked on projects for municipal governments and I liked the idea of being on the other side and being part of the government entity,” she wrote in an email.

One upcoming project that could benefit from Appleby’s experience is Kenai’s upcoming revision of its hazard mitigation plan — a plan to minimize damage from natural disasters, required for funding from the Federal Emergency Management Administration and written with input from state agencies and the Kenai Peninsula Borough — expected later this year. Appleby previously wrote these documents as a consultant.

“I was exposed to a large variety of plans, studies, and code during my time as a consultant, and I think that will provide a good base for me to succeed as a City Planner,” Appleby wrote.

Reach Ben Boettger at bboettger@peninsulaclarion.com.

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