House Finance chair pushes $350,000 through committee for boat ramp on lower river

Kenai River appropriation raises questions

Posted: Thursday, June 14, 2001

People specializing in the Kenai River, its fisheries and its development are scratching their heads over an item in the fine print of the Alaska Legislature's state budget.

The final budget, completed just before the May 8 adjournment of the legislative session, appropriates $350,000 to purchase a lot on the lower Kenai River for a boat ramp. The property is a 10.4-acre parcel off Beaver Loop Road near Cunningham Park.

"I was kind of surprised it went through the Legislature as it did," said Kenai Mayor John Williams, who spearheaded the effort.

"It came about in kind of a politically strange manner."

Critics are calling the appropriation a last-minute, backroom deal and questioning the project's feasibility.

"It hasn't been part of the planning process," said Jim A. Richardson, an Anchorage economist who keeps a home on the peninsula and served as a past president of the Kenai River Special Management Area Advisory Board.

"It just kind of popped out."

Richardson, speaking at the May 24 KRSMA advisory board meeting, called the plan a bad idea at a bad site. He noted that similar proposals in the past failed and that such a facility is not part of the Kenai Area Plan.

"Development of a high intensity area low in the river is just not an appropriate use," he said.

Williams explained that the idea for the purchase came up in discussions with Eldon Mulder, an Anchorage Republican who served as co-chair of the House Finance Committee. Mulder has a vacation home in Soldotna.

Mulder said the motivations for the legislation came from Williams, who brought up the issue, and his own experiences with crowded facilities on the Kenai River.

"I jokingly call myself the fourth member of the Kenai delegation in the House," he said.

Asked about public involvement in the appropriation, he replied, "We simply put in the money to go forward."

Because a ramp in the area has been discussed for years, it is inappropriate for people to claim it was a last-minute deal, he said.

Freshman Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, and Sen. Jerry Ward, R-Anchorage, whose districts include the property, were not involved in the discussions.

"I don't remember really talking to anybody about it," Chenault said.

Ward's aide, Loretta Brown, relayed a message from the senator that he did not know about the proposal because it came from the House side.

Sen. John Torgerson, R-Kasilof, said he thought the idea originated in the governor's office and peninsula officials were out of the loop.

Rep. Ken Lancaster, R-Soldotna, was the exception. The House freshman was on the Finance Committee and was active in river issues in his previous position as Soldotna's mayor. He has not seen the parcel in question, but knew about the project in general terms, he said.

"That's been kicking around five or six years," he said. "It is not a new issue."

When Cunningham Park was developed a decade ago, an unofficial ramp there was removed. Since that time, drift boat fishers have advocated another haul-out for the area, he said.

Williams said several proposals in the vicinity fell through.

"We were stymied by the agencies," he said.

At the KRSMA advisory board meeting, representatives of Kenai River stakeholder groups questioned the project's validity. Other priority projects in the area lack funding, while this one got funded without being on priority lists or discussed publicly, they said.

"It came as a surprise," said Ted Wellman of the Kenai River Property Owners Association and chair of the board.

Representatives of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association Inc. also distanced themselves from the appropriation.

KRSI partnered with the city of Kenai in fixing up Cunningham Park in the early 1990s, and submitted plans at that time to build a ramp on the adjacent lot downstream from the park. The legislation was a shock to them, said Jim Golden.

"The KRSI board -- and I'm on that board and know -- had nothing to do with it," he said. "I had no idea what lot they were talking about."

Suzanne Fisler, of the Kenai River Center, added that carrying out the plan is unlikely, because the ramp project at that site probably will not qualify for necessary permits.

State parks officials who examined the parcel said much of it is on the flood plain and the riverbank there is steep and subject to erosion. Building a ramp would require building an expensive gravel causeway across the wetlands, they told the KRSMA board.

Williams disputed that view.

"I know land and real estate around here pretty well. Bud (Lofstedt, lot owner) and I have talked about that lot for years," he said.

"I don't believe any of that land is in the tidal zone."

He said he did not consult with Kenai Peninsula resource agencies because, "To me, (the property) did not have the same restrictions."

Mulder said the intent is to replace the ramp that once existed at Cunningham Park with something better.

Kelly Hepler, director of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's Sport Fish Division, recalled discussing the proposal with Mulder during the winter. Hepler sent two of his lands people to look at the parcel. They concluded that a ramp was probably feasible, but cautioned that March was not the best time to evaluate the land, he said.

"That is the last I heard about it until the end of the session," he said.

Alaska State Parks, which will eventually manage the property, was not involved in preliminary discussions at all. Peninsula Parks Director Chris Degernes referred questions on the matter to Jim Stratton, the director of the Alaska Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation.

"I learned about this particular appropriation when the budget passed," Stratton said.

But State Parks knows about it now and is in the early stages of negotiating for purchase of the land. Even getting an appraisal will take months.

The property had been listed for sale, with a $395,000 asking price, for about a year, but was pulled off the market Feb. 12. It is owned by Vern "Bud" Lofstedt Sr.

Lofstedt said his removing it from the market was unrelated to the legislative action. He was considering developing the parcel on his own.

"There was a rumble a couple months ago about putting in a dock down here," he said. " ... Williams said they were looking for a piece of land."

Friday he said no one had talked to him about purchasing the property, and no one had walked it with him.

The lot's appraised value, according to the Kenai Peninsula Borough, is $115,600. It was last appraised in 1992, and is due for reappraisal this summer.

If the purchase goes forward, and even that is not a certainty according to all the officials involved, that would only be the first step. A lengthy permitting and public process would lie ahead.

Williams said he envisions having another facility similar to The Pillars at the site someday and estimated it would cost the state an additional $1 million to complete.

"Eldon has long wanted to see the development of a facility on the lower river," he said.

Williams said he had not expected the measure to pass the Legislature so quickly and had intended to discuss it with more area stakeholders.

"I figured we'd have time to talk about it between now and then," he said.

"Somebody needs to sit down with the agencies. Someone needs to sit down with the Lofstedts. ... There's lots to do."

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