This Nov. 21, 2015 shows the sign designating the unofficial border of Nikiski, Alaska. (Elizabeth Earl/Peninsula Clarion, file)

This Nov. 21, 2015 shows the sign designating the unofficial border of Nikiski, Alaska. (Elizabeth Earl/Peninsula Clarion, file)

Preliminary report points out issues with Nikiski incorporation effort

A preliminary report to the state’s Local Boundary Commission cites a number of aspects in Nikiski’s petition to incorporate into a home-rule city that don’t meet standards for incorporation.

Residents of Nikiski, a U.S. Census-defined place with a 2016 population of about 4,600, have tried several times over the decades to incorporate into either a city or an organized borough. Efforts in 1973 and 1984 both failed, according to the preliminary report. A third attempt in 1991-92 never made it to formal submission to the Local Boundary Commission, a five-member state body appointed by the governor that is responsible for establishing and modifying municipal government boundaries.

This time around, the effort has been spearheaded by Citizens for Nikiski Incorporated, a group of residents who organized to draft the petition and gather local feedback. As a petitioner’s representative, the group’s Co-Vice Chairman, Stacy Oliva, filed a 336-signature petition in October 2016 to incorporate Nikiski as a home-rule city of about 5,900 people and about 5,480 square miles.

A preliminary report to the LBC drafted by the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development, as staff to the commission, released Wednesday concludes that the petition doesn’t meet enough of the commission’s standards for incorporation.

According to the report, the petition lacks evidence that a city of Nikiski will provide additional services to the area, does not adequately demonstrate that services provided by the Kenai Peninsula Borough are lacking, doesn’t demonstrate a reasonable need for city government and proposes large, unpopulated areas and distinct communities within its boundaries. The report also concludes that the petition isn’t in the best interest of the state, and that it “seeks more than it proposes to offer.”

Nothing contained in the report is binding, department staff wrote. The report also notes that there are higher barriers to cities incorporating within organized boroughs, and that the conclusions it draws “do not preclude future attempts for forming a city of Nikiski.”

“The department envisions that a petition to incorporate a city that proposed providing a higher level of services than currently offered by the borough, with boundaries that match what can reasonably be construed as a community Nikiski—the populated area on the east side of Cook Inlet along the Kenai Spur Highway—could be received more favorably,” department staff wrote.

Nikiski residents have said major reasons behind their petition to incorporate include a lack of adequate representation on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly and a wish for more local control over property taxes raised through service areas there for roads, senior citizens, community recreation and fire service. The petition to incorporate states that Nikiski will not be able to achieve certain future goals and local improvements laid out in its Community Action Plan “unless Nikiski has control of funding, expenditures and the ability to legally negotiate as a governing body.”

“To preserve our community and the way of life offered here for future generations, we know that to overcome challenges facing our community, we have to take direct responsibility for our local government,” the petition states. “The community has shown for the past 40 years that we are community minded, fiscally responsible for our Service Areas, and ready, willing and able to persevere.”

The petition to incorporate Nikiski suggests the city use the existing boundaries of the Nikiski Fire Service Area, which extends west across the Cook Inlet to include Beluga and the Native Village of Tyonek, according to the report. Both Tyonek and the Kenai Peninsula Borough filed response briefs to the LBC that oppose Nikiski’s petition to incorporate.

The Native Village of Tyonek and the Tyonek Native Corporation filed a response brief together as a group through an Anchorage law firm, and stated in their response that they “oppose the Petition, which directly encroaches on the needs and rights of the tribal members and shareholders of Tyonek, as well as its community and cultural independence.”

The Tyonek group claims in its brief that the area would not stand to gain new services if Nikiski incorporated, rather that the duties of providing services would be transferred from the current service areas to a city of Nikiski. The brief also claims that Tyonek does not fit into the overall community as defined by the petition to incorporate — a territory being recognized as a community is one of the LBC’s standards for incorporation.

The petition describes Nikiski as a unique community with strong economic and cultural ties to the commercial fishing and oil industries. Tyonek’s response brief states that its identity is not tied to the same things, and that the two are too far removed from each other to be considered the same community.

“This image is foreign to Tyonek and demonstrates the divide between Tyonek and its neighbors across the Inlet,” Tyonek’s response brief states, referencing a particular passage from Exhibit G in the petition describing life in Nikiski.

The borough’s response brief also states that the communities of Beluga and Tyonek are too geographically removed to be considered the same community as Nikiski. The borough’s response brief also claims that there is not substantial need for city government and services in the area to support an incorporated Nikiski.

“The certain services listed in the Charter (parks and recreation, senior services, and road and emergency services) are already provided by the borough,” the response states.

Tyonek Native Corporation Chairman Robert Stephen, Sr. declined to comment further when reached by phone Wednesday. Members of Citizens for Nikiski Inc. said they don’t have additional comment at this time and plan to get together as a group to more thoroughly review the report.

The next steps in the LBC process are for public comments to be accepted through June 12, after which a final report on Nikiski’s petition will be published. Public hearings on that final report are tentatively scheduled for August, according to Wednesday’s report. Then department staff will draft a written decision for members of the LBC, which will meet to either approve or amend that decision. The public will have a chance to ask for reconsideration of that decision as well.

Public comments can be submitted to LBC@alaska.gov, or to LBC staff, 550 W. 7th Ave., Ste. 1640, Anchorage, AK 99501. To view the preliminary report or the petition to incorporate, visit commerce.alaska.gov.

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

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