The preliminary U.S. Census 2000 numbers for the Kenai Peninsula Borough are showing a population surge in the unincorporated areas, especially of the central peninsula.
Although suburbia seems out of place on the Alaska frontier, the trends suggest more and more peninsula people are living in country subdivisions and commuting into town to work and shop.
"There are some surprises," Borough Planning Director Bob Bright said of the numbers.
The overall change in the borough population between 1990 and 2000 was a 21.7 percent increase. But the growth rate within the six incorporated towns (Homer, Kachemak City, Kenai, Seldovia, Seward and Soldotna) was 7.9 percent while the growth rate outside cities was 31.4 percent.
On the central peninsula, high growth rates were noted in Sterling, Nikiski and the Kaliforn-sky Beach areas.
The details remain unclear.
Jane Gabler, a borough planner working with the census numbers, noted the boundaries for the counts in 2000 were not the same as in 1990. She was one of the peninsula officials who worked with the federal census workers to set up boundaries. The changes were based on consultations with people living in the affected areas, she said.
The Kalifornsky Beach area was completely revamped and includes what used to be counted separately as "Gas Well." The Nikiski and Sterling census-designated places both were expanded in area, even though Funny River was separated out from Sterling for the first time, she said.
The borough is waiting for more detailed maps from the Census Bureau so the staff can compare areas accurately. Bright expects them to arrive late this week.
Even without the details, people already are considering the implications of the larger trends.
"Certainly services will be impacted," Bright said.
More people means more demand for services. And when those people live outside cities, the services have to come from the borough, he said.
The borough is fortunate its overall growth rate is manageable. The situation here contrasts with the fast-growing Matanuska Valley, where the borough is bursting at the seams and infrastructure is unable to keep up with expanding demand, he said.
"We are not having to build new schools and things like that," he said.
The first item the borough will have to tackle in the wake of the census numbers is redistricting.
Borough Assembly President Tim Navarre said he plans to introduce a resolution at tonight's assembly meeting declaring that body malapportioned. He will set up a committee to study and recommend new boundaries for assembly districts.
The committee will do most of its work in May and include some people involved in the last redistricting project in 1991, he said.
Peninsula voters ultimately will pick the new boundaries during the October municipal election.
Grace Merkes, who represents the Sterling area on the assembly, said she would like to see another rural seat on the assembly, perhaps representing the Sport, Mackey and Longmere lakes area.
"I don't know what we are going to do with Funny River," she added.
The growth in the Sterling area has important implications for people there.
"It will effect the senior citizens, number one," she said. "The grant to the senior citizens (organization) from the borough is based on population."
She said she plans to ask for a new look at road planning, too. Many secondary roads built years ago to service a few homestead families are now bearing heavy traffic, she said.
"I don't see much commercial development. ... It's mostly residential," she said.
"I believe the population has increased a lot."
Up north in Nikiski, Fire Chief Billy Harris has seen residential growth, too.
The community's reputation and quality of life have changed for the better compared to 20 years ago, he said.
"I don't think now people are as afraid to live by the refineries as they used to be," he said.
Harris cited the large pool, good schools, Captain Cook State Park and the availability of lakefront property as amenities attracting families to Nikiski.
"All things considered, it's just a good place to live," he said.
Navarre said it is no coincidence the places showing growth are near towns and include service areas providing protection such as fire departments that help keep insurance rates down.
"I think you are just seeing the growth spurts in those areas because people desire the open spaces," he said.
"For the most part, their taxes aren't any lower. People want their 10 acres.
"It's kind of the best of both worlds."
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