The Soldotna City Council voted Wednesday to formally support the award of a state grant to a local organization looking to construct a peace garden and trails near Soldotna High School.
The idea for the Kenai Peninsula Peace Crane Garden Trails came after Sarah and Matthew Pyhala were gifted with seeds harvested from the site of the 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan. Those seeds later sprouted in saplings.
The project took a major step forward after the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly voted unanimously to enter into a Community Trail Management Agreement with the organization last year. The park is located on land owned by the Kenai Peninsula Borough inside the City of Soldotna.
Shimai Toshi Garden Trails Inc., which is the group behind the project, has already solicited multiple letters of support including from Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, and the Central Peninsula Health Foundation as well as local businesses like Odie’s Deli.
The city council first considered the resolution at their April 14 meeting, but voted to postpone their vote in response to multiple public comments by those claiming they had been left out of the public process.
After those concerns were raised, the City of Soldotna worked with Shimai Toshi Garden Trails Inc. to host a public meeting at the Soldotna Public Library.
Soldotna Director of Economic Development and Planning John Czarnezki said Wednesday that about nine people attended a public meeting held to discuss the trails and all were concerned about or opposed to the project.
“The general tone was that the neighbors were clearly upset that there wasn’t more public involvement in the process,” Czarnezki said.
Pyhala, who is one of the organizers of the trail efforts, said that they’ve worked on community engagement since the city council’s last meeting, including canvassing the adjacent neighborhoods to talk to and survey residents about the trails. Of the 27 households they were able to connect with, Pyhala said, 16 said they supported the project, six were neutral and five were opposed.
More people testified during Wednesday’s meeting.
Jack Blackwell, who said he shares a property line with the lot, asked the council to vote in opposition to the resolution on Wednesday. Blackwell said that while he is not necessarily opposed to the creation of a park at the proposed location, he is concerned about what he said is a lack of a long-term plan by Shimai Toshi Garden Trails.
“It’s really hard to support a concept if we don’t understand if the long-term vision is for the property,” Blackwell said. “There’s a lot of issues that have come up that need to be carefully vetted and I don’t believe that they have.”
Penny Vadla testified in support.
“These peaceful connections in a community, coupled with the building of trails and the addition of local art pieces and sculptures, will provide the added benefit of enhancing our community by creating value, adding to our quality of life and building connections,” Vadla said.
Ultimately, the resolution passed by the council will not result in any direct action related to the project. Rather, it is another piece of testimony of support the group will be able to share with the state when the grant is considered.
If Shimai Toshi Garden Trails is awarded the grant, they will use the money to install an ADA-compliant paved trail on the lot, Matthew Pyhala said Wednesday. If they do not get the grant, they will still construct a “lesser quality” trail that may not be as accessible.
“I just ask that you support this because it’s a project we’ve put a lot of time and effort into and I think it will be a wonderful benefit to the community,” Pyhala said.
Council member Pamela Parker said that she was also initially upset at the number of people who were opposed to the trails, but after further research into the organization and their plans for future development she felt better about supporting the resolution.
“This ended up being a lot more contentious than I think any of us anticipated,” Parker said.
Council member Dave Carey said that ultimately the council does not have a say in whether or not a park is built on the land because the property agreement is between the organization in the borough. Carey said that by supporting the resolution he is supporting a grant for a paved trail as opposed to a dirt one.
“With the grant, they’d do a much, much better job on the trail,” Carey said. “From my standpoint, it’s a really easy decision. This is going forward.”
Ultimately, the council voted unanimously in support of the resolution.
Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at firstname.lastname@example.org.