After more than six months of debate, the Kenai City Council on Wednesday decided to allow limited commercial development along the Kenai Spur Highway corridor across from the high school.
Over protests from residents in the neighboring community, Ordinance 2393-2009, which changes about 22 acres north of the highway from Rural Residential 1 and Conservation to Limited Commercial, was approved on a 4-3 vote.
Mayor Pat Porter and Councilmen Barry Eldridge, Joe Moore and Rick Ross favored the rezone; Councilmen Mike Boyle, Bob Molloy and Hal Smalley were opposed.
Residents of the MAPS Subdivision, named for streets bordering the neighborhood -- Magic Avenue, Aliak Drive, Princess Street and the Spur Highway -- have argued that changing the parcels along the highway to Limited Commercial would negatively alter the quiet, low-density complexion of their community.
Proponents have said, for the city to continue to grow, property along the highway corridor is needed for commercial development.
The controversy began late last year when Kenai dentist Dr. Todd Wortham applied to have a vacant 2.97-acre parcel across from Kenai Central High School rezoned so he could build a new professional building for his dental practice. The practice currently is in rented space in the Trading Bay center across from the Kenai Courthouse.
Rather than rezone only one parcel, the city council asked City Manager Rick Koch to compile a more comprehensive list of parcels along the highway corridor to be rezoned to allow for more small-scale commercial development.
The comprehensive list includes 13 parcels west of McCollum Drive zoned Rural Residential 1, and one city-owned parcel zoned Conservation along a creek bordering the new Wal-Mart property.
In supporting the rezone, Ross described the process the city went through to create the relatively new Limited Commercial zone rather than allowing larger General Commercial development in residential areas along the Kenai Spur Highway.
The Limited Commercial zone allows businesses with buildings no larger than 3,000 square-feet.
Eldridge said, during the past six months, one of the concerns raised repeatedly was that Kenai residents do not want to see strip malls lining the highway all the way to Soldotna. Limited Commercial prevents that, he said.
Moore said he does not believe the highway corridor is conducive to residential development.
In opposing the rezone, Molloy said he would like to see the proposed "MAPS Special Zoning District" go through the public process.
"This is a city-initiated rezone over strenuous opposition of the property owners," Molloy said.
Prior to the vote, Kenai attorney and MAPS resident Charles Winegarden and rezone opponent Becky Espy presented ideas for the establishment of the "MAPS Special Zoning District."
The district would allow single-family, two- and three-family dwellings, churches and off-street parking. Commercial and industrial uses would be prohibited.
In the MAPS special district plan, a professional office structure up to 4,500 square-feet would be allowed on Wortham's property. On a borough-owned parcel, colleges, elementary and high schools, government buildings, museums, parks and recreation, boarding houses and public parking would be permitted.
Also excepted in the MAPS special zone would be four parcels that currently have four-plexes on them. The four family dwellings would be allowed to remain with conditional use permits.
City Planner Marilyn Kebschull has said she is concerned that the new special district would create three spot zones within the district.
"The MAPS Special Zoning District promotes responsibly sensitive development which both supports the safety of all participants of the educational activities and preserves the residential environment of the area," Winegarden said during his presentation Wednesday.
The district would prohibit uses that "violate the residential character" of the neighborhood, generate heavy traffic and encourage unauthorized and dangerous highway crossings.
Several MAPS residents said commercial development such as restaurants would attract students from the high school across the busy highway.
Commenting about the special district, MAPS resident Mark Schrag said, "I've worked really hard to find a solution on this. What are you really after?
"The elephant in the room here is litigation," he said. "We don't want litigation, but if you take this vote tonight ... you've declared war on this neighborhood.
"I'm just asking you to table it," Schrag said.
Dr. Wortham told the council he supports changes the council has discussed regarding permitted uses in the Limited Commercial zone.
The Planning and Zoning Commission has scheduled a work session for April 8 to consider suggested changes brought about during the rezone debates.
"If I felt like what I was doing on that piece of property was harmful to the community, I wouldn't do it," Wortham said.
During two hours of public comment about the proposed rezone, a number of people said they favored commercial growth of the city, and several countered that the city's Comprehensive Plan calls for establishing a strong city center rather than allowing sprawling commercial development.
Resident Ed Steiner said, when he moved to Kenai in 1968, the city center was at Paradiso's Restaurant.
"The (modus operandi) of the city (businesses) so far is to move toward Soldotna and let the old city center decay," Steiner said. "I'd like to see that stop."
Mayor Porter said, at least in the past five years, it has been the goal of the city council to attract business to Kenai.
"Growth in your city is good," Porter said, adding the city cannot tell business owners they must locate in a currently empty building in the city if they want to open a business in Kenai.
"I want people to stay in Kenai," she said.
Molloy asked that the council table a vote on the ordinance, at least until after the Planning and Zoning work session on possible changes to the Limited Commercial zone, but his motion failed three votes to four.
The council then voted to approve the rezone. Student representative Maya Johnson also opposed the rezone. Her vote is advisory only.
According to City Attorney Cary Graves, the rezone goes into effect in 30 days.
Phil Hermanek can be reached at email@example.com.
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