Brooks Chandler, attorney for the City of Soldotna, addresses the Alaska Supreme Court regarding Soldotna annexation during oral arguments on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023. (Screenshot via Gavel Alaska)

Brooks Chandler, attorney for the City of Soldotna, addresses the Alaska Supreme Court regarding Soldotna annexation during oral arguments on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023. (Screenshot via Gavel Alaska)

State Supreme Court hears oral arguments on Soldotna annexation case

The case has been working through the Alaska Court System since 2020

The Alaska Supreme Court heard oral arguments Tuesday in the case of Soldotna’s annexation appeal, which has been working through the Alaska Court System since 2020.

In that case, Alaska’s Local Boundary Commission amended an annexation petition submitted by the City of Soldotna to say that annexation must be approved by local voters rather than the commission and the Alaska Legislature. At stake are roughly 2.63 square miles of land covering the Funny River, Skyview, Kalifornsky Beach and Ridgeway areas.

Since 2015, the City of Soldotna has been pursuing what’s called annexation by legislative review, as part of which the city could annex an area without approval by voters. A proposal to carry out annexation by legislative review is subject to approval by the Local Boundary Commission and review and tacit approval by the Alaska Legislature.

The commission in 2020 changed the city’s petition from legislative review to local option, meaning it must go before voters for approval. The city appealed that decision, and a final ruling has advanced all the way to the Alaska Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments in the case Tuesday.

“While the petitioner meets all required standards for annexation by a city, the Commission believes the petition should be converted from legislative review to local action because the expanding of the municipal boundary is of the most concern to the local residents, who are in the best position to determine whether they need the services provided by the City of Soldotna,” the commission’s final report says.

In a statement of dissent, commissioners John Harrington and Larry Wood said their opposition was specifically to the conversion of the petition from legislative review to local action, which they called an “inappropriate amendment” that disregards “constitutional and statutory requirements.”

The amendment approved on a 3-2 vote by commissioners was the first time the commission had ever converted a legislative review petition to a local option petition.

“We find that Soldotna’s petition for annexation of territory satisfies each of our annexation review standards and ought to have been approved by the Commission without imposition of this unprecedented, unlawful conversion,” the statement of dissent says.

The two attorneys arguing before the Alaska Supreme Court on Tuesday fell along similar lines.

Brooks Chandler, the attorney for the City of Soldotna, argued that the Local Boundary Commission ignored past precedent when it converted the city’s petition from legislative review to local option. Cities petitioning to annex land have always been allowed to pick their path forward once commission approval was secured, he said.

“The exercise of applying that precedent to the facts of this case compels the conclusion that the commission has gone off the rails here,” Chandler argued. “They’ve acted arbitrarily, unreasonably engaged in rulemaking and their decision should be reversed.”

Further, he said that previous annexation petitions in Alaska do not support the commission’s claim that a local vote is an important right held by the state’s residents, and said the framers of Alaska’s Constitution wouldn’t have created the Local Boundary Commission if they thought the state’s residents were best equipped to set municipal boundaries.

“Once it has been determined that that very specific regulatory standard titled ‘legislative review’ has been met — which is what the commission decided in this case, that that standard had been met by the City of Soldotna — that in that instance, the commission acts irrationally when it then decides that the best interests of the state require referral to local voters,” Chandler said. “It’s an internally inconsistent conclusion.”

Representing the Alaska Local Boundary Commission was Assistant Attorney General Bill Milks, who countered that the responsibilities and authority of the commission are spelled out in Alaska’s Constitution and include making such decisions as in the case of Soldotna’s annexation petition.

“The Constitution is clear, the statutes are clear, the regulation is clear,” Milks said. “This is the authority of the commission, to convert an action to local review. The authority already exists.”

Milks noted that the commission’s decision was upheld in superior court and asked the justices to reaffirm it. Alaska’s courts have historically recognized the ability of the commission to make “judgments of political and social policy,” Milks said, and said it’s appropriate to sort local boundary decisions on a “case by case” basis.

“What I think we’re seeing is an effort by the city to constrain the ability of the commission to act, to set up some more procedures that would tie down a commission and a future commission,” Milks said.

Alaska Supreme Court Justice Jude Pate said the split 3-2 vote by the Local Planning Commission on Soldotna’s petition suggests that the group was also conflicted about whether or not the annexation petition should go before voters.

“​​The public testimony was mostly opposed,” Pate said. “They’re already receiving services from the borough. I mean, I read that statement, and the commissioners’ decision as saying, ‘Well, yeah, we see that it says that, but it’s a close call, and the voters are better poised to decide.’”

Soldotna has previously successfully annexed land into the city four times via local action petitions. Justice Jennifer Henderson on Tuesday questioned the extent to which those previous actions should inform the city’s current legislative review petition.

“What jumps out is that Soldotna has had four previous annexations of little bits of land and then we have other communities, like Palmer … their legislative review petition wasn’t converted into a local action one even though dozens and dozens of previous annexations in that area had occurred by some form of local action,” Henderson said.

Chief Justice Peter J. Maassen concluded the day’s proceedings by saying that the court will take both sides under advisement and issue a decision “at a later date.”

The City of Soldotna has seriously considered annexation since at least 2005, when the city spent three years initiating an annexation process to include areas in Ridgeway, Skyview, Kalifornsky Beach and Funny River. Although the city council approved an annexation petition, Soldotna’s mayor at the time vetoed the petition and it was never submitted to the state.

The city revived the annexation process in 2015 when the city designated money for administration to begin studying the economic and social impacts of potential annexation. A report analyzing the financial impacts of annexation was published in 2016 and the city in 2017 hired a firm to oversee the public engagement areas of annexation.

The city estimated in 2018 that some services funded by Soldotna taxpayers were mostly being used by non-city residents, such as library cards and animal control response. Annexation of areas around the city would also give Soldotna the ability to influence the quality and location of new development in the area.

The Soldotna City Council in summer 2018 directed city staff to prepare a draft petition for annexation, which was published in mid 2019, and submitted the final version to the Local Boundary Commission that October. The commission solicited public input on the petition throughout 2020 and ultimately amended it such that annexation must now be approved by a public vote.

In pursuing annexation, which would grow the city’s tax base, the City of Soldotna has previously said the move would be in response to a growing population, a growing demand for services and commercial and residential development in the applicable areas.

Still, participants in public outreach events conducted by the city have found that some of the people located within the proposed annexation areas are ardent opponents of joining the city.

A 2017 study published by the city analyzed community perspectives on annexation. The study concluded that, while public participation was low, “vocal and passionate opposition to annexation appears to be a powerful influence in the community at large.”

“If the city decides to pursue annexation in any form, distrust may grow further, even among people who have been neutral on the topic thus far, and relations with affected community members and others outside city boundaries may continue to be challenging,” the report says.

Monday’s oral arguments can be streamed in full on KTOO’s Gavel Alaska at ktoo.org. The City of Soldotna also maintains a webpage with information about annexation at soldotna.org/government/annexation.

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

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