The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly chambers were standing room only Tuesday night as tension mounted over the anadromous waters habitat protection code and an ordinance to repeal its recent expansion.
Although the pressure rose, those waiting for the balloon to pop were out of luck as the meeting reflected the year-and-a-half-long issue itself — a lot of debate and little action. An ordinance to repeal recent protections was withdrawn, an ordinance addressing public notification of zoning districts received no comment and those in attendance shuffled home to live to fight another day.
Before all that, however, Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Mike Navarre addressed what he called “fear mongering” and demands for immediate action on the half-implemented ordinance that would expand existing near-shore habitat protections to all anadromous waters in the borough.
“I guess I’ve just heard people say, ‘You need to do this now, you need to do this now, you need to do this now,’” he said during his mayor’s report. “Public bodies can’t do things that way. You have to bring something before it and there has to be the public hearing process that allows the public their input in this process.
“All that we have asked for, my administration, was the opportunity to do some of that and to come back to the assembly with some of that. I hope that the public that are here will afford (us) that opportunity.”
Assembly member Kelly Wolf has other ideas. He proposed an ordinance to scratch the expansion measure — Ordinance 2011-12 — from the books, but withdrew it before it was introduced due to concerns about possible violations of Alaska’s Open Meetings Act. Wolf’s ordinance would have also called for a roll back of the regulations and an administrative review and assessment of the benefits of enforcing and regulating the entire anadromous streams habitat protection code.
“I do not want questions and clouds surrounding an ordinance and trying to push it forward just because of being, you know, a bullhead,” he said. “I don’t believe that is the right process.”
Wolf had little to say about the bulk of his ordinance, but thanked the crowd for their interest.
“It will come back in some form,” he said. “I believe very strongly in that.”
In the ordinance, Wolf claimed the borough’s “previous administration was unduly influenced” by the Kenai Watershed Forum and the Alaska Clean Water Actions in how they handled the habitat protection code. Wolf further alleged the watershed forum crossed the line from being a non-profit to being a lobbying agency influencing legislation.
Assembly member Bill Smith said that allegation was “completely unwarranted” and was an “inflammatory attack on a non-profit and its director” referring to the watershed forum and Robert Ruffner, who attended the meeting but did not testify.
Smith said Wolf should not make those statements again and it would be “quite appropriate” for him to apologize.
The assembly unanimously approved a measure — Ordinance 2012-39 sponsored by Ray Tauriainen and Smith — that seeks to remedy the fact many area residents said they felt blindsided by the ordinance’s implementation.
While the borough attorney’s office has maintained the issue was properly noticed while the assembly was considering it, residents complained they only received mail notice of the new regulations after their approval. Ordinance 2012-39 now requires mail notice to owners of property located inside a zoning district that is proposed to be created, amended or abolished. If an amendment to an existing zoning district involves increasing or decreasing its size, notice is only required for those with a changed status.
Navarre addressed the notification issue in his mayor’s report, saying that while residents will have another opportunity to comment to the assembly once the task force finishes its work, residents have the responsibility to stay informed. He said the issue had three public hearings, each of which is noticed by the borough.
“It’s online, it’s in the papers, and so if you are not aware of what’s going on, I just have to tell you, as a citizen of the Kenai Peninsula Borough you bear some responsibility,” he said. “Pay attention.”
Borough Chief of Staff Paul Ostrander gave the assembly an update before the meeting on how the Anadromous Fish Habitat Protection Task Force has progressed.
“The main thing we learned was that the question was too narrow,” he said referring to the original issue of whether or not lakes were appropriate for regulation. “After listening to all of these folks and listening to some of the concerns, we needed to broaden the scope of what we were looking at. That was pretty much across the board.”
Ostrander said the task force members have become more educated after digesting more than 10 hours of presentations, asking questions of experts and listening to scores of public testimony. The consensus is, he said, that changes need to be made.
“Some felt there were major changes that should be made, and others felt that minor changes were more appropriate,” he said.
Ostrander said the group’s next step is to finish drafting amendments by mid-February, which they will take out to public meetings in Nikiski, Moose Pass, Sterling and Kasilof. Those meetings will be designed to gather the public’s comments before the task force meets again to discuss them, consider the recommendations again and deliver them to the administration and assembly in mid-April, he said.
Tuesday’s assembly meeting also included public testimony from those on both sides of the issue.
Kasilof fisherman and poet Steve Schoonmaker said he came to “speak for the fish.” Before he shared a poem he wrote called “Deposit,” he addressed the assembly about protecting anadromous waters.
“We all know how precious the Kenai River is,” he said. “The past is gone and the future is coming. What do we do now about now? If Soldotna is the seat of the government and the Kenai River is the backbone of Soldotna there needs to be spine to regulation to protect it. These waters and fish belong to no one, but everyone.”
George Pierce, also a Kasilof resident, said 1,600 people have signed a petition against the ordinance. He asked the assembly why it “continually fights against the will of the people.”
“Next meeting I come to I’m going to bring a list and I’m going to read off, if I have to, for three minutes of the people who are on that list,” he said. “I wish somebody would respond somehow and just tell us we don’t matter and I’ll quit coming. But, like I keep telling you, you are elected by us and we don’t like this ordinance.”
Taking another approach, Assembly Member Charlie Pierce said the entire idea of habitat protection is “missing the mark.” He said the real issue is the number of guide boats fishing the river during the summer. Pierce also said the borough’s “hammer approach” was not right and that he’d rather see people work together on a solution.
“We as a group of people need to grab a hold of what the real problem is,” he said. “We’ve got (code 21.18) and we are haggling over this and I don’t think that is fixing a damn thing for us.”
Brian Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.