When Norm Blakeley, of Sterling, bought property at 44676 and 44686 on the Sterling Highway in Soldotna earlier this year, he said he had no idea it would end up being such a headache.
The property, which has both The Pour House and Pizza Boys on it, also has a third residential structure — and all three are out of compliance with the city’s water and sewer code.
Blakeley signed a development agreement with the city on July 20 which required that work to bring the property into compliance would be completed by Sept. 28. At the time Pizza Boys and the Pour House submitted a total of $10,000 in cash security to guarantee the installation of the required improvements.
During Wednesday night’s meeting, Blakeley asked that the city extend the time bring the property into compliance into April 2013, return the cash security and allow the residential structure to remain non-conforming for the foreseeable future.
Blakeley addressed the council and said there were a lot of good things that happened during his negotiation process with the city, just two or three things that he wanted to have considered.
Blakeley said it would cost him $25,000 to $30,000 to bring the residential structure into compliance with water and sewer code and he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with that portion of the property.
“I would like to have two or three years to try to develop that and not hook that up,” he said. “Then if we don’t get it hooked up we’re going to tear down the house one way or another.”
Blakeley said there were other measures the city could take to ensure compliance and didn’t think using a $10,000 bond was the best way to do so.
“You have other alternatives like shutting down sewer and water, fines and taking away our compliance for business,” he said.
Before asking the council to discuss the issue, Mayor Peter Micciche recognized both the city administration and Blakeley for their work together.
“I do think we have an issue going forward, that issue is that we have a lot of noncompliant properties that we want to have become compliant with folks willing to invest in our community,” he said. “I think what we need to work on in the next couple of months ... is amending the code to work with giving additional time so that folks willing to invest in our community have additional time.”
Micciche said he considered the first request for additional time to come into compliance with city code to be the most important of the three requests.
Council members John Czarnezki and Pete Sprague initially voted against the idea of extending the time Blakeley had to come into compliance.
Czarnezki said he didn’t feel that the council chambers was the right place for this kind of code change to occur.
“I don’t feel we have the history, the expertise, the knowledge to do this. That’s why we have a city staff and I’m opposed to it for that reason,” he said. “I believe that our city staff are the experts, we have a code and I trust them ... I believe that if there are changes that need to be made to our code I’m more than willing to consider them and even introduce them; but in order to be fair and consistent to all applicants in the past and future I don’t think this is the right step.”
Czarnezki said he felt it would set precedent for people to come before the council and petition to get out of portions of the code that they were not interested in complying with.
Micciche said it was the responsibility of the council to respond to public appeals.
“You can choose to vote now but the ability for our citizens to appeal is a valuable right,” Micciche said.
After the meeting, Blakeley said he was frustrated by Czarnezki’s comments.
“It’s really important in our society that people know and understand that we do have the ability to go to our borough managers and our city councils and get them to help us through the process,” he said.
Ultimately the council agreed to extend Blakeley’s time to bring the properties into compliance until June 2013. They did not address allowing one structure to remain out of compliance or returning the bonds.
It was decided they would address changing the code in the interim.
In his written recommendation to the city, Larry Semmens, city manager, said he believed the city should be careful when deciding whether to allow the Blakeleys to leave a noncompliant structure on their property, essentially waiving a portion of the code.
“It is a dangerous precedent to simply waive code requirements and you should not start down this path,” Semmens wrote.
Blakeley and Semmens both said the property owners knew about the code requirements before they purchased the two parcels.
“I recognize that there is significant cost of complying with the code in some cases,” Semmens wrote in his letter to the council. “Just this month a residential home owner was required to eliminate a bootlegged water supply service to his property and property connection to our main. The cost was substantial due to the requirement to bore under a paved street to get to the main. Although we empathized with the individual, we did not feel we had a choice other than requiring compliance with the code.”
Semmens suggested in his letter that the council consider amending the water and sewer code to provide a process for a variance from certain code provisions or to establish a process for allowing additional time for compliance. He also suggested creating a program of city financing of code compliance.
Micciche agreed with Semmens citing Blakeley’s extensive investment in the community which includes Sal’s Restaurant, a roller rink, the radio stations KSLD and KISS, a restaurant in the Peninsula Center Mall and a car lot.
Blakeley said the issue was ultimately one of how friendly Soldotna wanted to be to business and investment.
“If there’s a big sign that comes into the city of Soldotna that says ‘We’re open for business,’ that’s good,” he said. “If there’s a big sign that says we’re a pain in the rear, that’s not good.”
Rashah McChesney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.