At tonight’s work session on Soldotna’s annexation efforts, the city council will discuss the findings from a public engagement report based on the input of about two-percent of the affected population.
The final report found that moving forward with plans to expand its borders to surrounding areas could exacerbate distrust between Soldotna city government and the community.
The report was put together by The Athena Group, a consulting agency based in Olympia, Washington, which the city hired to involve and engage the community in the conversation on annexation. The agency will present their findings to the city council tonight at Soldotna City Hall during a work session starting at 5 p.m.
“(The) work session will be a presentation from Meagan Picard, the City’s consultant, to share the results of the in-person conversations and online comments she gathered through the public engagement process,” said Director of Economic Development and Planning and interim City Planner Stephanie Queen. “Although we did not reach and hear from as many people as we had hoped, overall the message we heard was consistent with what has been shared in the past.”
The report concluded that, overall, most participants are opposed to annexation.
“Before the engagement process began, the consultant team heard from city and borough staff and leadership and others that there was significant opposition to annexation in the community,” the report states. “This understanding was verified early in the engagement efforts – at least among participants in this process.”
The Athena Group had hoped to reach 30 percent of the population through a variety of engagement activities, which included online forums, chamber presentations, open houses, interviews and community conversations.
The public engagement period ran from Sept. 1 to Oct. 30, the report states, and saw 103 participants in one or more of the engagement opportunities, which totals just two percent of Soldotna and the study areas’ combined population.
“The largest group of participants by type includes people who live, own property, or own/manage a business in the study areas,” the report states. “These are the people who would most impacted by an expansion of city boundaries.”
The report gives three possible reasons for the low involvement — fatigue, disinterest and controversy.
According to the report, a major barrier to productive conversations was unincorporated area community members’ “anger that this conversation was happening at all. Many felt that they had definitively expressed their opposition to annexation many times before this engagement began and didn’t want to discuss it any further.”
The report also found, through brief interviews on the streets and inside local businesses, that many city residents and businesses didn’t see any impact to them, regardless of whether annexation occurred. Among those who didn’t hold strong interest in or opinions on annexation, the report found that people were hesitant to become embroiled in the controversy.
“Nearly everyone engaged on the issue of annexation expressed awareness of the heated controversy around Soldotna annexation,” the report states. “When preparing to engage the public, the consultant team reached out to local organizations to help get the word out about opportunities to share their opinions on annexation. Most organizations were clear that they didn’t want to be viewed as endorsing annexation, and one refused to help because of the controversy.”
The public engagement process was the second part of the city’s efforts to study the potential for annexation, Queen said. The first was the fiscal impact report released in 2016, which detailed the financial impact of annexing each of the proposed nine study areas.
“We were hoping to engage more people than actually participated, so that was a bit of a disappointment. We were hoping to reach a lot of new people and have conversations about it, but I understand that is a difficult conversation to have,” Queen said. “…We’ve been talking about this for several years and this was our first focused effort to get more people in the conversation.”
Queen said that following The Athena Group’s presentation tonight or at a subsequent meeting, the city will look for direction from the city council as to whether they want to continue pursuing annexation and, if so, what their priorities are.
Reach Kat Sorensen at email@example.com