Tuesday's debate was supposed to be over a lawsuit that could open doors for the Kenai Peninsula Borough to claim prime state-owned real estate by Kenai and Trail lakes.
However, what quickly rose to the surface before the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly was public opposition to putting prime recreational land and habitat into borough hands -- where it could ultimately be subdivided and sold.
A significant segment of the borough population feels "that the selection of a piece of land by the borough is somehow bad news for the community and bad news for natural resources," said Soldotna's Margaret Spahn.
At issue was Mayor Dale Bagley's appeal of the Kenai Area Plan to Alaska Superior Court.
"It basically comes down to a philosophical difference of whether land should eventually get into private ownership -- there's a market and there's a need -- or whether it should be locked up in parks," Bagley said. "We have plenty of parks."
The plan sets land-use classifications for more than 5.3 million acres of state land -- dry, tidal and submerged -- within the borough. It determines which parcels the borough can select to complete the remaining 44,000 acres of its land entitlement from the state.
Bagley says the borough should be allowed to select certain land by Kenai and Trail lakes, but the plan puts that out of reach. Like the state's 1997 Kenai River Comprehensive Management Plan, the new Kenai Area Plan recommends much of the land Bagley wants for addition to the state park system.
Bagley appealed to the court on April 7 but said he would withdraw the appeal if the borough assembly did not endorse it. After hearing considerable testimony both for and against the appeal, the assembly postponed voting whether to support it until its May 2 meeting in Seward.
Homer assembly member Drew Scalzi said he was surprised by Spahn's comments.
"Margaret alleged, alluded to the fact that there may be a perception out there that the general public and certain segments feel that land is safer in the hands of the state rather than the borough," he said. "I never even thought about that as being an issue."
However, the assembly has voted in the past to dispose of some borough land despite heated local objections. Its decision several years ago to sell land many Cooper Landing residents value for Dall sheep habitat and recreation provoked controversy that continues today.
There also was controversy last year when the assembly traded 40 acres near Homer to a developer who planned to stockpile gravel and maybe mix concrete there. Critics said the 40 acres borders popular ski trails and residential areas and includes moose habitat. They objected to industrializing the gateway to Homer.
Scalzi said the assembly is more accessible than the state, and he always thought the public could have more control of land in the hands of local government. He asked Ann Whitmore-Painter, chair of the Moose Pass Advisory Planning Commission, about the perception that land is safer beyond the borough's reach.
"In my area, it's quite widespread," she said. "In fact, they kept asking, 'Couldn't we give it back to the federal government?' There's not a lot of faith in the borough government in my area."
She praised the extensive public process the state used to develop the Kenai Area Plan. The state and the borough administration worked hard to involve Moose Pass residents, she said. The final plan grew from negotiation and compromise.
The borough gave up selections east of the highway by Trail Lakes in exchange for timberland to the west, she said. Bagley asked what is wrong with the additional selections he proposes east of the highway in the lowlands by Trail Lakes.
"It's primary recreation area, and that was the concern," she said. "The lowlands all flood pretty badly. If you've ever seen a floatplane tied 300 or 400 feet out into the lake, you'll realize how badly that area does flood."
However, Debra Holle of Kasilof said the borough's land selections have been stymied for years, while borough residents struggle for economic survival. She favored Bagley's appeal.
"We need to have the very best lands we can possibly select for our borough in order to grow," she said.
Assembly members Patrick O'Brien of Seward, Pete Sprague of Soldotna, Chris Moss of Homer and Tim Navarre of Kenai spoke against the appeal. Assembly members Jack Brown of Nikiski, Grace Merkes of Sterling and Paul Fischer of Kasilof spoke for it.
Kenai assembly member Bill Popp took no position, and Scalzi said he was having a difficult time picking sides. He asked about the consequences of postponing a vote.
Bagley said public trust has long been an issue. To allay the public's fears, he cited proposed selections by Kenai Lake. Those include the beach where Cooper Landing holds a popular annual fund-raiser for a community park and the Cooper Landing school.
Any borough plans for that land would go through the Cooper Landing and borough planning commissions and the assembly, he said.
"I don't know why that wouldn't be the public park," he said. "We'd probably allow them to do all sorts of things like gazebos, picnic areas, restroom facilities, fire pits -- you name it. Whereas the state under Parks wouldn't allow them to do any of that. We do have a lot more control, a lot more say. We can benefit people on land that we don't necessarily sell."
About a minute before the midnight deadline for the assembly to adjourn, Merkes moved to postpone action until May 2. The assembly voted 5-4 for postponement, with Navarre, O'Brien, Sprague and Moss in the minority.
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