Borough buyback request stands

Reconsideration of controversial resolution fails to garner votes

Posted: Friday, January 09, 2004

Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly members who hoped to put a controversial resolution calling for a state buyback of shallow gas leases around Homer back on the table fell short of that goal Tuesday when the assembly voted against reconsideration.

Resolution 2003-129 passed Dec. 16 by a 6-3 margin. In addition to buying back the leases, it also requested that Alaska statutes that now authorize the Department of Natural Resources commissioner to waive compliance with local laws in the interests of shallow gas development be amended to prohibit such action without adequate public participation in the decision. Further, it called for development of "clear and high standards" that must be met before local laws are waived.

A state lease sale held last spring gave an independent company, Lapp Resources Inc., the rights to tap state-owned subsurface gas deposits under 22,000 acres of land stretching from Anchor Point toward the head of Kachemak Bay. Those subsurface deposits lie beneath private homes, the Homer city water supply and at least one school.

That the lease sale was even being considered early last year was not widely known, in part because state resource officials, following the letter of the law, announced the sale in a legal ad in the Peninsula Clarion and Ancho-rage Daily News but not in two widely read local papers, the Homer News and the Homer Tribune.

Many residents never knew about a comment period until it was too late to comment, some not until the sale had occurred. Only then did many property owners learn how little control they would have over how gas might be tapped through their surface holdings.

At several widely attended public hearings residents demanded the state buy back the leases and start the public process over. The resolution adopted by the assembly in December came in response to that public outcry. Controversial shallow gas development already under way in the Matanuska Valley contributed to the local pressure for a buyback.

When the resolution passed, assembly member Gary Superman, of Nikiski, called for reconsideration. A reconsideration vote scheduled for Tuesday's meeting drew only four affirmative votes, too few to bring it back to the table.

A veto is a possibility, but when asked later in the evening, Mayor Dale Bagley said, "I haven't made up my mind."

Whether the assembly could muster six votes to override a veto is not known. However, that particular parliamentary exercise may not be worth the trouble.

Vetoed or not, the resolution already has made the intended statement. Further, its expression of the assembly's mood now has been supplanted by Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, and Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, who last week filed bills (SB 250 and HB 364) calling for a moratorium on further gas leases and a buyback of those on the lower peninsula. That puts the issue squarely before the Legislature, a key aim of supporters of the assembly resolution.

Superman called the resolution a mistake. He said it "sends a message that we are not going to find out what kind of resource is on the south end of this peninsula."

Superman said he agrees with people who complained that the process had been flawed, but he said he doesn't believe the real issue is about process. He said the assembly attempted to address issues raised by lower peninsula residents Dec. 16 with proposed amendments to the resolution. They failed. Those amendments called for more public meetings, but referred to a buyback only as a future option.

Superman said he doubts those amendments would have changed minds on the lower peninsula. He said the general historical consensus on the lower peninsula seems to be that residents do not want anything that might upset the environment.

"I think that sometimes that is very unfair for the rest of us," he said, later noting what he called a lot of subsidizing of some parts of the borough by others. He said the gas issue is being "controlled by emotionalism."

Assembly member Milli Martin, of Dimond Ridge, said it is true that residents of the lower peninsula look to protect their environs, and in particular Kachemak Bay, and view them in a different light than people living on the upper peninsula.

"Yes, we would like to have known that we had the opportunity to have been included and given the same opportunity that, say Tal-keetna had been given, and it didn't happen," she said, referring to recent proposals for resource development near Talkeetna that eventually were abandoned after resistance arose from local residents.

Martin said amendments offered last month did not address the basic problem: that residents had been left out of shallow gas lease discussions.

"The people of the lower peninsula are perfectly and completely convinced that if they had been given the opportunity, as Talkeetna had been given, that those leases never would have been extended in the first place," she said.

In other business, the assembly:

n Postponed action on Ordi-nance 2003-45 providing for a flat tax on aircraft until the Jan. 20 meeting;

n Adopted Ordinance 2003-19-29 appropriating funds for purchase of a new folder-stuffer mailing system;

n Passed Resolution 2004-003 authorizing planning for a new multiuse building for 911 Dispatch, Central Emergency Services Administration, and the Borough Office of Emergency Management on borough-owned land on Wilson Lane in Soldotna.

n Introduced Ordinance 2003-19-33 that will appropriate $49.9 million in bond proceeds for expansion of Central Peninsula General Hospital. The ordinance is scheduled for a public hearing Feb. 3.

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