The 30-year debate over Kenai’s Lawton Acres — a wooded city-owned strip by the Kenai Spur Highway that business owners have sought to develop and nearby residents have sought to preserve as a buffer between their neighborhood and the Kenai Spur Highway — will be heard once again at a May 15 Kenai city council worksession.
This time, the discussion will be about Kenai city manager Paul Ostrander’s attempted compromise between the residential interest and a September 2016 request from dentist Jeremy Sorhus of River City Dental, who’s offered to buy four acres of the 16.5-acre strip for a new clinic. When the city council discussed Sorhus’ offer on January 24, it was opposed by residents from the neighborhoods to the south, some of whom have fought development on the property since the 1980s.
After the Jan. 24 meeting, council members asked Ostrander to suggest options for selling, retaining or dividing the land. Ostrander gave his suggestion at the council’s April 19 meeting: creating a 30-foot strip of land on the neighborhood-facing south side of Lawton Acres, which the city would keep, and dividing the highway-facing side into three parcels to be offered for private acquisition, possibly via competitive bidding.
One of the three parcels to be sold is the proposed site of Sorhus’ clinic, which would be buffered with a wider 130 foot strip on the south side.
Directly west of Sorhus’ prospective purchase is an approximate 6.3 acre lot which Kenai has seeded with wildflowers to create a summer attraction. The Field of Flowers lot would also remain in city hands.
“All of the areas proposed for retention by the city could be deed restricted to prohibit development of these properties,” Ostrander wrote to the council in an April 14 memo. He recommended doing so for the two neighborhood-facing buffer strips, but not for the Field of Flowers, “to allow greater flexibility for the city in the future,” according to Ostrander’s memo.
Greg Daniels, a resident of the Lawton-bordering Rogers Road nieghborhood since 1982 and an opponent of previous development attempts, told council members on April 19 that the subdivision plan wasn’t the outcome he expected after attending the Jan. 24 meeting.
“Where in that meeting did the city council’s intent refocus the worksession on dividing Lawton Acres into a four-tract subdivision?” Daniels said. “…I’m not really happy about that. It went from a little tiny parcel to a subdivision all of a sudden.”
He reiterated a concern he’d expressed at the Jan. 24 meeting — that one commercial development on the lot would lead to another — and said Ostrander’s plan seemed to confirm his fear.
Lawton Acres was once a part of the military airfield that encompassed much of modern Kenai during the 1950s and early 60s. The Federal Aviation Commission granted it to Kenai in 1964 under the condition that the land be legally dedicated to support the airport.
If not directly used by the airport, the condition requires such land to be marketed or leased for airport revenue. This financial obligation prevents the city from closing the land to development without contributing its value to the airport fund.
Kenai city attorney Scott Bloom said he believed the deed restrictions Ostrander recommended “would trigger an obligation on the general fund to reimburse the airport.”
A 2015 city-commissioned appraisal valued the entire 16-acre Lawton strip at $478,000, or about $29,000 per acre.
Daniels said the city should consider a land trade with the airport in order to acquire and preserve the Lawton property — a possibility council member Henry Knackstedt said he hadn’t thought about, but which could be an alternative.
Council member Bob Molloy asked city administrators to investigate what pieces of city-owned, non-airport-dedicated land might make comparable trades for Lawton Acres, and whether the FAA would have to consent to a trade. He also questioned whether or not such a trade would have public support.
Council members also discussed the possibility of holding a popular vote on whether or not the city should purchase Lawton Acres.
The May 15 worksession will take place at 6 p.m at Kenai City Hall.
Reach Ben Boettger at firstname.lastname@example.org