Nikiski study group makes progress on incorporation effort

Members of a study group in Nikiski are making strides in their efforts to turn the unincorporated area into a city.

In June, members of the Nikiski Citizens Incorporation Study Group presented their findings on the feasibility of incorporating the area into a home-rule city after work done with consultants. About 70 residents attended that meeting, where they were told the group would being collecting signatures needed to send a petition to incorporate to the Local Boundary Commission, which has final say over whether the question of incorporation could go to the ballot for residents to vote on.

The group has progressed since then, and has gathered about 150 signatures out of the roughly 270 it needs for the petition to go to the Local Boundary Commission. The group needs 15 percent of the number of votes cast in the last state general election inside the proposed city. It also held an open house Wednesday at the North Peninsula Recreation Center, where residents could learn about the incorporation petition and ask questions.

The push for incorporation is motivated by a wish for more local control of the property taxes raised through Nikiski’s four service areas, members have said. Becoming a home-rule city would also allow Nikiski residents more autonomy to control their own way forward in the future, members said, rather than being governed by the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly.

“There was concern about rules and regulations, from everything from animal control to blight ordinances and what color you’re going to paint your house, and we’ve seen this all throughout other communities,” said group member Norm Olson. “We want to leave the North Road just like the North Road is.”

The proposed borders for the would-be city are the same as the Nikiski Fire Service Area. If those boundaries are used, the communities of Tyonek and Beluga across Cook Inlet would be included in a city of Nikiski. Group member Stacy Oliva said contact was made with Tyonek when the study group first began presenting its findings to Nikiski residents and to Borough Mayor Mike Navarre. They have since maintained contact, she said, and are still working out a good time to meet once the fishing season has died down.

Group members have also worked out a draft home-rule charter, which is included in the petition and other materials that would be sent to the Local Boundary Commission and can be viewed on the group’s website, nikiskiinc.org. The members emphasized that they would structure the charter so that it could only be changed by a vote of the residents down the line.

The draft charter can be continuously updated throughout an incorporation process, Oliva said, because Nikiski residents would still have to elect a charter commission after incorporation — like Soldotna did through a May special election for its own home-rule efforts — to finalize the charter and put it to a vote.

As it is written now, the draft charter proposes an eight-member city council and a mayor with full voting powers, for a total of nine voting members. Olson said this number was settled on in order to provide the most widespread representation possible.

“We kicked around (the idea of) six, and decided to go with more because other communities found that that was a better number,” Olson said, referencing the other charters the group looked at from around the state and in the Lower 48.

The charter also calls for an ambassador from Tyonek to the council. Tyonek residents would also be equally able to run for a seat on the council if the community were a part of an incorporated Nikiski, the group members said.

Group member Joanne Hardesty said she was skeptical of the incorporation efforts at first, and feared the move could mean larger or more oppressive government, or raised taxes. After learning about the petition and draft home-rule charter, Hardesty said she got on board and joined the citizen group.

Wednesday’s open house was sparsely attended, and members of the study group said word of mouth and face-to-face interaction still seems the best way to communicate in the rural community. The members plan to hold more open houses to let residents air questions and concerns while they continue working toward incorporation, they said. Oliva said the group has a self-imposed goal to get the petition to the Local Boundary Commission by mid-September.

The Local Boundary Commission is also required to hold public meetings before it decides whether the question of incorporation can go to ballot, she said.

Nikiski resident Jeff VanVelzor said he only recently found out about the incorporation efforts, and that he came to the open house to find out more. Based on what he learned about the petition and plans for the draft home-rule charter, VanVelzor said he thinks incorporation could be a good move for Nikiski.

“It’s a good time to start something like this,” he said. “It’s in its fledgling stages now, but if things start to happen out here and we start to grow, we’ll be able to have a handle on it and, you know, be more of a well oiled machine instead of a floundering baby duckling.”

The citizen group’s next meeting is at 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 30 at the North Peninsula Recreation Center in Nikiski.

Reach Megan Pacer at megan.pacer@peninsulaclarion.com.

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