Eastern Kenai Peninsula residents packed Seward City Hall on Tuesday to voice opposition to Borough Mayor Dale Bagley's appeal of the state's new Kenai Area Plan.
The plan sets land-use classifications for state-owned land in the Kenai Peninsula Borough and determines which land the borough can select to complete the remaining 44,000 acres of its entitlement from the state.
During the borough assembly's annual meeting in Seward, a crowd of Moose Pass, Seward and Cooper Landing residents raised fears that if the appeal succeeds, the borough will select and develop prime recreational land and wildlife habitat.
"The message that I'm getting from the folks is, they don't trust us," said Seward assembly member Patrick O'Brien. "They're afraid that if the borough ultimately ends up with this property, we won't handle it in a manner that the public desires."
The assembly put off voting whether to continue Bagley's appeal until May 16. It scheduled a closed-door meeting Monday to discuss the appeal with the borough administration.
"If we had voted today, I would have voted no," said Kenai assembly member Bill Popp. "Quite frankly, it's because I don't think we've been presented a clear case on why this should be appealed."
Popp said he could wait one more meeting to vote.
"But I'm going to expect to be given a clear case of law that can be defended by our legal department," he said.
Bagley says the state has put the best land off limits and left mostly mountaintops, glaciers and wetlands for the borough. In particular, he says the borough should be allowed to select state land by Kenai and Trail lakes -- some of the peninsula's most valuable real estate.
However, the Kenai Area Plan and the state's Kenai River Comprehensive Management Plan recommend adding much of that to state parks. The Kenai Area Plan reserves more for wildlife habitat and recreation. Bagley appealed the plan April 7 to the Alaska Superior Court but said he would withdraw the appeal if the assembly declined to support it.
O'Brien said that of 34 comments he received before Tuesday's meeting, just one favored continuing the appeal. Constituents cited the assembly's plan to sell 10 acres Cooper Landing residents value for sheep habitat and recreation, he said.
"It's a situation where a community has taken a very strong position about a piece of land and the borough has gone against the wishes of the community," he said. "So, I understand why the public doesn't trust us."
Of 15 people who testified Tuesday, 14 opposed the appeal.
Moose Pass resident Erin Knotek said local citizens worked hard with the state to create the plan.
"The mayor's action displays total disregard and disrespect for the political process and the wishes of his constituents," she said.
She said she was drawn to Moose Pass for the mountains, streams and abundant wildlife by Trail Lakes. She said the same values make tourism the area's fastest-growing industry.
"Are these people traveling here to see more homes on the lake? Are they traveling here to see more Fred Meyers?" she asked. "They're not. They're traveling here to see the mountains and the lake."
The land Bagley wants should be reserved for habitat and recreation, she said.
Kasilof assembly member Paul Fischer asked Knotek whether she assumed that if the borough selects land by the lakes, it will never be used for parks.
Knotek said that based on comments from borough officials, she believes the borough would develop the land.
"It's prime real estate," she said. "It's not fish habitat. It's shoreline."
Seward's Charlie Crangle said borough officials claim parks lock up land. He agreed.
"To me, they lock it up for the full use of all the public, for future generations," he said.
Putting land in private hands locks out the public, he said.
"It leaves it only for those privileged (people) that are lucky enough to purchase it perhaps in the future from the borough," he said.
Seward's Mark Luttrell, director of the Eastern Kenai Peninsula Environmental Action Associa-tion, said the Kenai Area Plan has broad public support. In writing it, the state considered comments from 16 public meetings on the Kenai Area Plan and 30 public meetings on the Kenai River plan, he said. It took numerous written comments.
The borough planning commission and the borough's local advisory planning commissions have supported it, he said, and last year, the borough assembly endorsed the recommended state park additions. Meanwhile, in response to Bagley's complaints, the state has made another 4,100 acres available for borough selection.
Luttrell said taxpayers do not want to waste money on the appeal.
"If the lawsuit proceeds, it's going to be contentious," he said. "East Trail Lake has brown bear corridors. It won't be lost without a fight."
Sterling assembly member Grace Merkes said the appeal is about a lot of land that is extremely valuable to the borough, not just the land by the lakes.
Nikiski assembly member Jack Brown said he does not blame those who want their homes surrounded by state and federal land, but the assembly is responsible to the borough as a whole.
"If we deny getting this land and putting it out, that translates to higher taxes," he said.
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