Two issues headlined last week's Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly meeting:
The proposed land sale for gravel to be used in the Kenai Spur Highway extension project and
Designation of a site for the possible construction of an 800- to 1,000-bed private prison.
One thing supporters and opponents of the land sale agreed upon was making their voices heard at the first of two public hearings.
The ordinance, introduced in March by Jack Brown, assembly member from Nikiski, sought to satisfy a required 20 percent match for $6 million from the federal government for the road extension.
According to Brown's ordinance, not only were gravel sources close to the project scarce, but there is an absence of sufficient gravel on borough-owned land in the area. Therefore, Brown proposed selling seven parcels of borough land totaling 469.5 acres and valued at $571,600 in exchange for gravel located on an 80-acre parcel owned by James T. Hall.
Hall's property is on Nikishka Road, approximately 6.5 miles south of Captain Cook State Recreation Area, right off the Spur Highway.
Placing a $600,000 value on the gravel, which was based on an "in bank value" of $1.50 per cubic yard, the ordinance stated, "The borough is not giving away any public assets for which it is not being compensated as they are receiving a higher value in this sale."
Hugh Chumley, a Sterling businessman, said he had never paid as low as $1.50 per cubic foot for gravel. Other individuals urged the borough to purchase gravel from local gravel pits and to heed opposition from adjacent property owners.
Brad Phillips, who said he was the first permitted gravel pit owner on the Kenai Peninsula, referred to gravel as a "priceless commodity" and said $1.50 was a reasonable price.
"There are limited sources of gravel," Phillips said. "If you find one, you better grab it and hold on to it."
Requesting postponement of the next hearing until the assembly's May 15 meeting, Brown said he will present a revised plan to the borough planning commission today. The revisions include deleting from the deal approximately 100 acres of borough land on which gravel has been located, 40 acres to be used as a buffer for wildlife and neighbors of the property being sold to Hall, and another 10 acres to be designated as preservation land.
"Also, we would require Hall to reconstruct the Nikishka Road," said Brown of the need to strengthen the road to handle gravel-hauling trucks.
"A number of people want to sell gravel to the borough," Brown said. "And they're not going to think this is a good plan. Their only good plan is if we buy from them. I understand that. And there are other folks that don't want anybody to benefit from any deal with the borough. I understand that, too."
Besides ensuring that the borough doesn't lose the $6 million, Brown also wanted to make sure local residents' needs are addressed.
"If people who own land that is right around, adjacent to or near the borough land want me to set aside buffer zones, I will do that," Brown said. "I'm trying to accommodate everyone who lives in that area."
Clearing its final hearing and receiving assembly approval was a resolution authored by Bill Popp of Kenai and Ron Long of Seward, designating a 60-acre portion of approximately 420 acres owned by the Kenai Natives Association (KNA) as the site for the proposed prison project.
Private citizens as well as those representing the team already selected to work on the project testified.
Urging that the project be put to a vote of the people, James Price of Nikiski said there were too few concrete answers to questions about the scope and impact of the prison.
"We're talking about the borough going into the prison business," said Vicki Pate of Nikiski. "That is called 'corporate welfare.' It's not the proper role for the borough to be in."
Vicki Duggin of Kenai spoke in favor of a state rather than privately maintained prison.
Architects Tom Livingston and Bill Kluge, part of the team working with the borough to promote and plan the prison, provided information about the facility's design, security systems and back-up power.
Livingston said that selecting a site would benefit the feasibility study to be conducted prior to construction of the prison.
Carol Segura of Kenai spoke in favor of bringing back to Alaska the 800 inmates currently incarcerated in a private prison in Florence, Ariz. She also referenced KNA's plan to develop programs to work with Native inmates.
KNA's attorney Blaine Gilman said he was confident the feasibility study would confirm that the prison would be the best use for the land and the project was in the borough's best interests.
Pete Sprague, assembly member from Soldotna, offered an amendment to remove from the resolution the option for long-term lease of the land and, instead, directed the borough to purchase the acreage.
"I can't support building on property the borough doesn't own," Sprague said.
Although the amendment found favor from Grace Merkes of Sterling, Milli Martin and Chris Moss, both of Homer, as well as Sprague, it lacked the votes needed to pass.
When it came to the resolution, however, Merkes was the only opposing voice.
"I will not support it just to move forward," Merkes said. "I'm ready to say no. Until we have better information, I'm not ready to move any farther on the project."
However, assembly president Tim Navarre of Kenai said, "It's time to finalize the site so people will know that if the prison goes, where it will go."
The next assembly meeting is scheduled for May 1 in Seward.
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