Cemetery deal not yet at rest

Assembly votes to transfer land to Soldotna but will reconsider

Posted: Monday, January 09, 2006

An ordinance authorizing conveyance of 10 acres of borough land to the city of Soldotna at a cost of $1 for development of a cemetery has proved a controversial piece of legislation.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly voted 6-3 to OK giving the 10-acre parcel on West Redoubt Avenue to the city, which wants to design and create a local final resting place available to people from Soldotna and other areas of the borough.

Assembly member Grace Merkes, of Sterling, called for reconsideration following the vote. Reconsideration will be taken up at the Jan. 17 meeting.

Public testimony was mixed. Those opposed pointed to the parcel’s proximity to a school — Redoubt Elementary — and noted concerns that a cemetery would lower surrounding property values. Some said the conveyance for $1 amounted to a giveaway at a time when the borough is facing tough financial times. Opponents also suggested the borough would be far better served if the 10-acre parcel was sold for private homes, thus adding property tax revenue to the borough, something a public cemetery would not do.

Supporters said a cemetery does not have to be detrimental to a neighborhood’s aesthetics or property values and some criticized characterizing the conveyance as a giveaway.

Chris Pankrast, a resident of Amaryllis Street, which intersects West Redoubt across from the cemetery site, said the borough would forego much-needed property tax revenue by giving the acreage to the city.

The assembly has a duty “to be good stewards” of borough residents’ land and should be seeking fair market value for it, Pankrast said.

“I don’t believe turning prime real estate into a cemetery is a way to grow this city,” he said.

Another Amaryllis Street resident, John Dombovi, said he was opposed to the cemetery because of the nearby school.

“I think you have a theme of the area right there, with schools in place,” he said. “It’s a place to raise families, have children. I believe that a cemetery would detract from the area right next to a grade school.”

He also said that considering the borough’s tight budget, it would be “a poor decision” to give away land at this time.

Several others who testified expressed similar sentiments. But not all were opposed.

Barbara Jewel, a resident of Soldotna and a member of the city’s cemetery task force, urged approval, saying the group had looked at several possible sites.

“This location is, by far, the best that we looked at of numerous locations around Soldotna,” she said. “It is readily accessible to grieving and visiting family members” and has the advantage of available utilities.

Katherine Parker, of Soldotna, said the area was losing its history as long-time residents were buried elsewhere. Her own husband is buried in Kasilof, but she plans to transfer his remains to the Soldotna facility when it is built, she said. Beyond that, Parker said cemeteries do not have to be aesthetically displeasing, pointing to an Anchorage hotel that overlooks a cemetery.

According to information supplied to the borough by the city, development of the first acre would cost around $131,000, with additional acres running between $35,000 and $45,000. Annual operating and maintenance costs would be in the $14,000 range for the initial acre.

“That may be a little low, but it is based on our current estimates,” said Soldotna City Manager Tom Boedeker.

Boedeker also said that the estimated operating cost would cover annual duties, such as cutting the grass, maintaining fences and checking for and repairing damage.

“You’re not going to get by with less than this expenditure,” he said.

Boedeker said that he and borough Mayor John Williams had been discussing using 10 acres of city land north of the subject parcel, part of which includes a storm water pond, as an alternative site for a cemetery. That acreage was conveyed to the city by the borough in 1997 for use as a sedimentation pond and storm drain system. Boedeker said he couldn’t commit to that without direction from the Soldotna City Council.

Assembly member Pete Sprague, of Soldotna, introduced the conveyance ordinance after a land-swap deal outlined in an earlier ordinance came to a dead end. Soldotna had been prepared to trade 17.2 acres of city land near ARC Lake for the 10 acres on West Redoubt. But that deal was squelched by a deed restriction that could not be removed.

The fair market value of the 10-acre parcel is estimated at around $139,000. The ARC Lake property was estimated to be worth bout $55,000. At one point, assembly member Deb Germano of Homer moved to convey the 10 acres for $100,000. Sprague successfully amended that to the $55,000 the ARC Lake property was said to be worth.

Sprague took issue with those calling the proposed conveyance a give-away. He said it was a municipality-to-municipality transfer for a public purpose.

“I think there is a huge distinction there between that and a give-away,” he said.

The assembly voted 6-3 to adopt the measure, with assembly members Paul Fischer, Margaret Gilman and Gary Superman voting no. Merkes immediately asked for reconsideration at the Jan. 17 meeting.

Mayor Williams said later that he would utilize the intervening two weeks to continue discussion on the proposed conveyance and other possible options with officials from Soldotna, and hoped to provide the assembly with a better solution.



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