Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to remove a potentially misleading reference to the clearcutting of the Spur-fronting lot bought by dentist Todd Wortham. According to Glenda Feeken, a realtor who has worked with the property, the lot was clear-cut when Wortham bought it.
Kenai residents who spoke Tuesday against proposed construction between the Kenai Spur Highway and nearby neighborhoods said they are sick of debating the issue.
The property in question, a 16.49-acre strip of wooded land standing between the high-traffic commercial area north of the Spur and the quiet neighborhoods to the south, has generated intermittent controversy since 1985. Since then, periodic development ideas have been opposed and defeated by area residents such as Roy Welles, who spoke about the latest controversy: the possibility of a small dentist office on a portion of the strip.
“Kind of like a bad penny this thing keeps resurrecting itself,” said Welles, who has dealt with controversies on the property both as a former Kenai Planning and Zoning commissioner and a resident of the strip-bordering Lawton Drive. “It seems to never die, so I’m wondering: is there any room to compromise?”
Cottage in the woods
The site — named for a subdivision called Lawton Acres that was planned but not actually built on the land in the early 1980’s — was granted to the city by the Federal Aviation Administration following the decommissioning of the military airfield that covered much of present-day Kenai in the 1950’s and 60’s. For people in nearby neighborhoods, the woods filter out the light and noise from the highway and from Walmart and other commercial buildings to the north. For others, it is potential commercial land sitting unused. According to a memo from Kenai City Attorney Scott Bloom, residents opposed plans to build a Pizza Hut on the property in 1985, as well as attempts open it for commercial use in 2005, 2013 and 2016.
The present construction request is from a dentist, Dr. Jeremy Sorhus, who currently runs the practice River City Dental from an office complex opposite the Kenai Courthouse in the downtown area. Sorhus said he seeks to move his practice to a new building on a 4-acre plot on the east edge of Lawton Acres, adjacent to Kenai Central High School, to be closer to his many high-school age patients.
Dr. Todd Wortham, the dentist from whom Sorhus bought River City Dental, also tried to move the practice closer to the high school for similar reasons in 2009, when he bought about 3 acres opposite the high school across the Kenai Spur Highway and sought to re-zone the residential lot to. Members of the surrounding neighborhood blocked the rezone, and that of 13 adjacent properties changed to avoid charges of spot-zoning, with a successful city-wide voter referendum in the October 2009 municipal election. The property Wortham bought presently stands vacant.
Sorhus’ proposal for a roughly 2,500 square-foot cedar and stone-sided building thoroughly enclosed by the existing trees brought far less ire from the neighbors at Tuesday’s meeting. Sorhus said he was “going after a cottage-in-the-woods-type environment” for his clinic and wants to “avoid modern commercial construction.” Many of the residents who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting agreed with Welles’ statement that if anything is built on the property, he’d prefer something like what Sorhus has planned.
Sorhus said he is “not here to create discord among the citizens of Kenai,” and if the clinic doesn’t happen, his “heart won’t be broken.” He’d be willing to make concessions to neighborhood wishes, he said, such as donating the part of his prospective property bordering Lawton to the city for preservation as a buffer.
Greg Daniels, who said he bought his home on Rogers Road in 1982 and has fought construction on Lawton Acres many times before, opposed the sale to Sorhus with an argument that Kenai’s neighborhood residents have frequently voiced in land-use debates: urban sprawl.
“We want Kenai to grow — in the correct places,” Daniels said. “We believe in keeping the city from stretching like a rubber band further and further from the central core of the city proper. One look at what happened in Wasilla, doesn’t take much imagination to see that happening here in Kenai.”
Though Daniels said the dentist office wasn’t objectionable per se, it could be “a foot in the door” for future construction on the strip.
Even with good will on all sides, legalities could make it expensive to end the 30-year land-use debate over Lawton Acres.
By the terms of Kenai’s land grant from the FAA, the Lawton Acres property is legally dedicated to support the airport. If such land is not directly used by the airport, the condition requires it to be marketed for airport revenue. Bloom said the FAA grant terms could return the land to federal ownership if this condition is violated — making it illegal for Kenai to permanently set the land aside as the buffer strip neighborhood residents desire.
Land can be released from the airport obligation and sold if the earnings are deposited in the airport fund. Kenai has “bought” such airport-dedicated land for itself in the past. In 2008, the Kenai council “purchased” airport-dedicated city-owned land beneath Kenai City Hall and the Kenai fire and police stations for $260,000, rather than make annual lease payments of 8 percent of its value as the city’s then-new airport land policy required. Doing something similar for Lawton Acres may be possible, though council members had differing opinions of its feasibility.
A 2015 city-commissioned appraisal valued the entire 16-acre Lawton strip at $478,000, or about $29,000 per acre, Bloom wrote in his memo. Kenai code prohibits the city from selling land below its appraised value.
“I don’t believe the residents in that neighborhood are going to pull together half a million dollars to purchase it,” said Kenai city council member Henry Knackstedt. “It would be my opinion right now that if it went to a vote, the residents of Kenai would not recommend the city spend a half million dollars to purchase it, either. I don’t see that happening. What we do have is a proposal before us right now that I think we need to look at. … I think it (Sorhus’ plan) meets the needs of the neighborhood, and also meets the needs of the airport.”
Council member Bob Molloy said he “would not have a problem” with Kenai buying the land for preservation.
“There continues to be a need of this property for a public purpose, which is to be a buffer zone between commercial development on the north side and residential development on the south,” Molloy said.
Council member Glenese Pettey said the dilemma could be ended by private purchase of the land for buffer use.
“If someone with great resources were to come forward and purchase this land, it would solve all these issues,” Pettey said. “It’s an opportunity for anyone out there with resources that would wish to purchase these lands and donate them to the citizens of Kenai so it could be a truly conservation piece of land and be a buffer. Right now the way the land is situated with all these different variables, if we do nothing the frustration that our neighborhood community members have experienced will be experienced again, because it will come up again.”
Council member Mike Boyle has been a long-time opponent of selling commercially-developable city land, a position he maintained Tuesday.
“I think we’re guardians of what the city owns, and we should be thinking of future generations far beyond our lifetime,” Boyle said. “I think this is one of those pieces. … Personally I think we ought to be looking at quality of life, and this is quality of life for the people in that neighborhood, as well as the city, because we do use that piece of property as a recreational area.”
In spring, the Kenai Parks and Recreation department seeds a meadowed portion of the Lawton strip with wildflowers. Bloom said this doesn’t conflict with the airport dedication because the wildflowers, gazebo, and fencing on the property are temporary presences.
New Kenai city manager Paul Ostrander, who started the job Jan. 9, said he generally doesn’t favor the exclusive process of negotiating land sales between the city and a single prospective buyer, such as Sorhus.
“Typically what you’re doing is entering into negotiated sales with one individual and not giving others the opportunity to purchase that property if there is additional interest,” Ostrander said. “Just as a general rule I feel negotiated sales are bad public policy, unless there is overwhelming public purpose to justify it. There should be strong findings to show why it makes sense for a municipality to negotiate with that specific person rather than opening it for a competitive process.”
Ostrander also took the opportunity to speak broadly about city land issues. Of Kenai’s 18,297 acres, the municipal government owns about 5,000, according to Kenai city planner Matt Kelley — making it Kenai’s second largest land-owner after the state of Alaska, which has about 6,000 acres. Ostrander recommended research of what land is and isn’t needed for city purposes.
“Beyond the specific proposal we have in front of us here, one of the things I’d like to do is an inventory and analysis of all the city lands,” Ostrander said. “That would include both airport and general lands. What we need to do is determine first of all what we have, then we need to determine out of that land we have what we should retain for a public purpose. From a planning perspective, if there’s potentially a fire station that needs to be built, or any sort of public facility we might need in the future, we need to make sure we retain those lands for public purpose. After we’ve determined that there is an inventory of lands that are surplus to public need, we need to determine if a land sale is appropriate.”
Such an analysis, Ostrander said, would allow Kenai to use a more open and competitive process where demand exists for city land, and to hold land sales when the larger economic situation and the private land market are favorable.