On Wednesday Kenai Planning and Zoning Commission members unanimously gave transportation and contracting company PRL Logistics six conditional permits to use a grass airstrip by Kenai’s south beach and to use a nearby mansion — which PRL bought from Kenai on May 17 — for lodging, office space, and a restaurant. The airstrip, created by local pilots on city-owned land, runs about 2,900 feet north to south between the Kenai River’s south shore wetlands and a beach heavily traveled by dipnetters in the summer.
PRL, an Anchorage-based company that has been operating a lodge and logistics center in a former cannery on the Kenai River’s south shore since 2014, is expanding its presence in Kenai as it plans to begin basing a first-generation hybrid airship at its south shore property, tentatively by 2019.
The mansion was built was built by Royal Pacific Fisheries co-founders Marvin and Rosetta “Sis” Dragseth, who also made use of the airstrip. The mansion property is zoned rural residential, and the airstrip heavy industrial — zonings which don’t permit many of the uses PRL founder and CEO Ron Hyde intends for the properties. Hyde wrote in a letter to Kenai City Planner Matt Kelley that he plans to use the mansion property for a event-hosting, bed-and-breakfast style lodging, a restaurant and a base for mobile food vending, in addition to office space for PRL or other leasing businesses. Per Kenai’s land use table, these uses in rural residential and heavy industrial zones require conditional approval from Kenai planning and zoning commissioners, who unanimously granted the permits PRL sought with little discussion.
The airship, which can take off and land vertically without requiring an airstrip, will likely use land PRL presently owns to the east of the mansion and airstrip, Hyde has said. PRL is seeking to buy the airstrip land from Kenai for the use of its own planes and those of clients and guests — which Hyde wrote to Kelley could be as large as a DeHavilland Twin Otter. Doing so required PRL to get a exception to a 2001 Kenai ordinance prohibiting vehicle traffic in airstrip’s location — the fragile and ecologically important dune area bordering the beach — which Kenai City Council members unanimously granted with the mansion sale.
The estuary wetlands to the east of the airstrip are valuable feeding and breeding ground for migratory birds, drawing over 180 species and hosting a summer gull colony that can reach 30,000 birds, according to local birder Ken Tarbox, who advocated for an extended evaluation of the airstrip permitting in a May 2 letter to the Kenai City Council. The Alaska chapter of the Audubon Society also expressed similar concerns in a letter to the Kenai council.
Kelley wrote in his report to the Kenai Planning and Zoning Commission that craft using the airship would avoid flying over the wetlands.
“It is anticipated that all take-off, landing, and maneuvering would take place over the waters of Cook Inlet,” Kelley wrote. “Except for safety and weather conditions, there would be no anticipated maneuvering of the airship or any fixed wing aircraft over the residence or the wetlands and migratory bird area adjacent to the subject parcels.”
Among the conditions of PRL’s permit are requirements that the company submit an operations plan for the airstrip to Kenai every two years, that the airstrip remain grass, that no construction take place on the property, that the adjacent beach remain open to public access and that no use of aircraft or airships endanger personal-use fishermen. A city-built rope fence, separating the beach and the northern part of the airstrip and the dunes beyond, is meant to keep dipnetters and other beach-walkers from straying onto the airstrip. The permit requires PRL to extend the fence along the airstrip’s entire length.
The only alteration the planning and zoning members made to the Kenai planning department’s suggested conditions was to change one that would have only allowed aircraft to be loaded and unloaded during the day to a requirement that aircraft loading and unloading “shall not unreasonably interfere with the enjoyment of neighboring private property given their residential character.”
Reach Ben Boettger at email@example.com.