A sign welcomes visitors to AlaSkins and the River Terrace RV Park on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023, in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

A sign welcomes visitors to AlaSkins and the River Terrace RV Park on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023, in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Soldotna river development, RV park evictions unrelated, city and owner say

The park is home to more than a dozen year-round residents

As the City of Soldotna refines its vision for a revamped waterfront between the Sterling Highway and the Kenai River, new attention is being given to a property that could be a crucial component of development in the area.

The Soldotna City Council convened last week with city staff and project managers with Anchorage firm First Forty Feet to go over next steps and review public input received during community workshops held earlier this year. More than half of surveyed residents, for example, said a riverfront trail was a “must have,” and more than half were in favor of a public market space.

During the work session, council members considered both a “river street” and “main street” configuration of the project area. The key difference between the two models is whether the development in the area would be oriented toward a new main street, or toward the Kenai River.

Included in the proposed project area is the River Terrace RV Park, which occupies three parcels totaling about 9.7 acres on the east side of the Sterling Highway and is owned by Gary and Judith Hinkle. Riverfront redevelopment project managers have identified the chunk of land as a possible community hub that could help foster additional development in the area.

When it isn’t catering to summer tourists and their RVs, however, the River Terrace RV Park is home to more than a dozen year-round residents. Those residents were served with eviction notices at the end of July, asking them to vacate the property by late May 2024.

Jim Butler, the Hinkles’ lawyer, said Wednesday that those evictions are unrelated to the City of Soldotna’s redevelopment project, but rather come as the couple, now in their late 70s, has been trying for years to make operating the RV park “more manageable.”

“It’s definitely more and more the exception than the standard use of the property,” Butler said of year-round residency at the property.

Butler said that, while the Hinkles are aware of the City of Soldotna’s Riverfront Redevelopment Project, they haven’t been singled out from other businesses in the project area. He said his clients are “very open” to work with the city to plan the property’s long-term future, but that no offer to purchase the property has been made.

Generally, Butler said the Hinkles are looking for a less strenuous operation, like only being open for seasonal tenants.

“Transition to seasonal use will provide a lot more flexibility for the Hinkles to decide what they want to do with the parcel long term,” Butler said.

Soldotna Director of Economic Development and Planning John Czarnezki said last week that it was never the city’s goal to go into the riverfront project with an acquisition mindset.

The city is getting an appraisal of the property, but has not been directed by city council members to do any type of purchase. He said the eviction of River Terrace residents and Soldotna’s explorations of a riverfront redevelopment project are unrelated.

“The city had no role in Gary’s decision to evict his tenants,” Czarnezki said.

The city is interested in the Hinkle property, Czarnezki said, because of its location, its size and because the Hinkles have already expressed interest in selling it. The almost 10-acre piece of land, he said, is located on the Kenai River and is one of the first things people see while traveling into Soldotna from the south.

One piece of the Soldotna Riverfront Redevelopment Project, he said, is “catalyst” sites — areas meant to attract additional development in the project area. Czarnezki said one catalyst site is at Soldotna Creek Park. The other could be at the Hinkle property.

“We knew that, as a potential for a catalyst site, that (property) had the potential because of Gary’s interest in selling it and its location,” Czarnezki said.

Still, though, he said nothing’s been set in motion. There are 38 parcels in the project area, and it is not the city’s intention to keep properties it acquires. Rather, the city’s goal would be to put any developed property back into the private sector, Czarnezki said.

There’s also the issue of the property’s contamination, which Czarnezki could affect whether the city tries to acquire the property.

The River Terrace property carries a legacy of contamination stemming from a dry cleaning business that operated on the site between the 1960s and 1980s. The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation in 1992 investigated a complaint of leaking barrels at the site and found 22 barrels full of oil and other substances.

By 1997, the department determined that solid and groundwater at the property were contaminated with perchloroethylene, a dry cleaning solvent. Cleanup work has been ongoing since. Butler said work at the site is now shifting from active mitigation of the contamination to monitoring that occurs once or twice a year — another way operations at the site will be scaled back.

Soldotna Planning and Zoning Commission Chair Kaitlin Vadla during an Aug. 2 commission meeting requested that city staff keep in mind Soldotna’s need for more affordable housing as they engage in long-term city planning. She pointed to the River Terrace RV Park’s eviction of long-term tenants as an example of a move that will displace some of the city’s low-income residents.

“I know that the folks on the corner in what is now an RV park have gotten their notice that they need to vacate, but there’s really no place to go,” Vadla said.

The Alaska Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act describes the reasons a mobile home park tenant can legally be evicted. The law says tenants may be evicted if there is going to be a change in how the land on which the park is located is used. In that case, landlords must still provide 270 days of notice and the termination date cannot fall between Oct. 15 and May 1.

“The general rule is that if you are intending to close a mobile home park because you want to transition the use, in most instances you need to provide 270-day notice to the tenants,” Butler said.

The City of Soldotna has already heard from one resident concerned about evictions at the River Terrace Park, and Czarnezki said he expected they’ll hear from others. Looking ahead, he said the city is aware of its shortage of low-income housing, and is keeping an eye out for opportunities for and examples of successful mobile home relocation.

More information about the Soldotna Riverfront Redevelopment Project can be found at soldotnariverfront.org.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.

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