A public hearing on a proposal that would put a question to voters on whether to form a new economic development service area, drew about 20 community members to the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s assembly chambers on Thursday in Soldotna.
The proposal, put forward by assembly member Kelly Wolf, would put a proposition on a ballot during a special election on Nov. 3. It would allow voters inside of a proposed Central Peninsula Economic Development Service Area to vote on gaining expanded economic development services in an area that includes a portion of Kalifornsky Beach road where residents have been dramatically affected by flooding and high water in recent years.
Resident opinions varied during the hearing to gauge the community’s reception to the proposed area. Assembly member Kelly Wolf, Borough Mayor Mike Navarre and Assistant Borough Attorney Elizabeth Leduc, along with members of Wolf’s committee assigned to explore the service area option, answered questions on what a service area could, and could not, do for residents.
The service area was introduced as an ordinance during the July 28 assembly meeting. The service area would an area of the Kenai Peninsula including most of District 1 – which stretches from the Cook Inlet along Kalifornsky Beach Road and Cannery Road east toward Soldotna with an eastermost boundary at Sports Lake. It would not include the City of Soldotna.
Residents testified primarily to two main issues related to the service area, the first on whether a new service area could give residents more power, voice and ability to act quickly when the district floods seasonally; the second, whether an economic development district could potentially protect some homeowners from unwanted annexation.
In past years, some residents said, the borough has been unable to provide assistance through flood mitigation. A service area would give residents the authority and means to address flooding concerns themselves, some said.
“I don’t care if it’s a development district or a service area,” said community member Dave Yragui. “It is apparent from the work that was performed while the area was flooding, as well as after the flooding events, that some people in this administration do not understand what happened or are interested in finding solutions. I think it is incumbent on our community to help solve our own problems.”
Yragui’s property, and others along Kalifornsky Beach Road have been plagued by high water since a series of high water events and flooding in 2013. In 2014, Yragui and several other residents formed the K-Beach High Water Drainage Task Force with the goal of working with the borough and other agencies to develop a permanent drainage solution. Its members, and several other residents who have been affected by flooding have testified for hours in front of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly on flood-related issues in the past two years.
Some residents wanted to know how an economic development service area would affect the City of Soldotna’s exploration of annexation. Several were concerned about the prospect of being annexed and wondered aloud whether the service area might provide a voice for community members who are against being annexed.
Wolf said he intended the service area to be an impediment to the progress of annexation.
“The City of Soldotna can fall on the idea of ‘Well, we don’t have to ask you if you want to (be annexed),’” Wolf said. “Well my intent with the service area is… to throw a pebble in the water to create a ripple. It’s not going to stop it, but if you create cause and create kind of an impediment, to make the City Council stand up and say, ‘Well, maybe we should ask these folks.’”
Leduc said that, from a legal standpoint, the service area cannot be a separate authority. It will have to provide services that are not already being provided to residents, and will be considered part of the borough, she said.
Navarre said the borough and the City of Soldotna are still in an information gathering stage when it comes to annexation of certain areas of the borough. Real discussion about annexation won’t begin until March, 2016, he said.
Some residents expressed concern that the service area would be duplicating economic development services already provided by the borough. Wolf said the main goal of the service area is to give residents of his district a stronger voice and more control over the direction of the district.
“I want my neighbors in my community to have more say in what happens in their community,” he said when he introduced the ordinance during the July 28 meeting.
He would be open to changing the type of service area being proposed, he said.
“When I was looking to try to create a service area, I just grabbed economic development service area,” Wolf said. “It very well may end up morphing into something a little different.”
Other borough assembly members, and Navarre said they were opposed to a new economic service area being formed during July 28 assembly meeting.
“This is not very well defined,” said member Mako Haggerty.
Haggerty said he believed the formation of new service areas should be grassroots efforts that come from within the communities which stand to be affected by them.
Member Blaine Gillman said he was concerned with the idea of forming an economic development service area and not a flood service area.
“It’s not an economic service area and so really the practical impact of that is that you have everybody in your district paying for the flood situation on K-Beach,” Gillman said during the July 28 meeting. “If it’s really an economic development issue, why aren’t we using the (borough’s economic development district).
Navarre said he was opposed to the ordinance for several reasons, including that it would cost the borough money to hold a special election and that those types of elections typically don’t draw many voters to the polls.
“If there’s something in this area, from an economic development standpoint that they want to bring forward then Mr. Wolf outght to bring it forward … the assembly can then debate that and if it were to fail, then maybe the next step is to create a separate economic development district,” Navarre said during the July 28 meeting. “This is ill-timed, very poorly defined and I think a very, very bad precedent for this borough.”
The service area would stand to have a mill levy of 0.01 mills, unless the assembly approves an increase, according to the proposed ordinance.
The ordinance will come up again for public discussion at the assembly’s Aug. 18 meeting.
Reach Megan Pacer at firstname.lastname@example.org