Editor's note: The following is the third in a series of articles about the problems the city of Kenai faces as the bluff overlooking the Kenai River erodes at a pace of 3 feet per year.
There are certain inherent risks that come with being a homeowner. Leaky roofs, fires, burst pipes, insect and rodent infestations, flooded basements and settling foundations are potential problems all homeowners face.
Having the ground erode out from under one's home, however, is not.
Yet that's a problem homeowners along the Kenai bluff face. The bluff erodes at an average of 3 feet per year -- with some areas eroding faster than others-- taking trees, lawns, fences, utility lines, roads, parking lots and even buildings along with it.
"I don't think most people realize how much it falls off and how much property is being lost," said Gary Foster, a homeowner along the bluff. "It's amazing. Right now you can look over the edge of my property and see the remains of an old, hand-dug well with the pumps hanging out and part of the old cabins. There's a lot of history just going away."
In the past 50 years, the section of bluff along the mouth of the Kenai River near Old Town has eroded an estimated 150 feet, destroying homes and other buildings and part of Mission Street. Many remaining bluff-front homes sit far enough back from the edge that it will take 30 years or more before erosion poses an imminent threat to them. Not all homes are in as good of shape, however.
Gary and Kathleen Foster spent about $100,000 moving their home on Riverview Drive back from the edge of the bluff. When they bought the house in 1959, they knew erosion would be a problem.
"We bought the house knowing that it was close," Gary Foster said. "We knew it was dropping, we just weren't sure how fast it was going. I wanted to move it back before it got so close we couldn't get equipment behind it."
The Fosters moved the house back about 70 feet on their property when they bought it, leaving a buffer zone of about 60 feet between the house and the edge of the bluff. Since then, Foster estimates they've lost about 40 feet of property.
"We used to have a lot of big trees (in the yard)," he said. "The view gets better every day and the lawn mowing job gets easier. ... I didn't realize how much of a problem the city had until I actually moved here. I think that's the case with most people, they don't realize how much of a problem it is."
Bud Lofstedt, a deacon at Kenai Bible Church, has been watching the bluff erode in the Old Town area for the last 50 years. The church has lost a parking lot to erosion, and Lofstedt remembers the road and two lighthouse stations that have gone over the side of the bluff.
"The church is back a good 50 feet," he said. "I would say it would last another 30 years or so, but it's bad around there. It would be nice if they could do something."
The city of Kenai hopes to do something. It is trying to get federal and state agency approval and federal and state grant money to build a mile-long sea wall and coastal trail, estimated to cost $10 million, from Pacific Star Seafoods on Bridge Access Road to the mouth of the river. The city hopes the project will stabilize that section of the bluff from erosion and provide a river-front walking trail for the community to enjoy.
"I think you get both things out of that coastal trail," Foster said. "By putting in the armor rock (the material the city hopes to use for the sea wall) it gives us a good coastal trail and ties in our hiking and biking trails. Besides, it saves the bluff to boot. I think it's a real win-win situation."
If the project is built, it may be win-win for residents who live along that mile-long stretch of bluff, but the homeowners who live beyond the extent of the sea wall would not reap its proposed benefits.
"Our city limits do go out past Wildwood, but we in no way intend to make any attempt to stabilize the bluff between here and Nikiski. That is futile," said Kenai Mayor John Williams. "It was once said to me if the U.S. government became involved in trying to save the bluffs of America, it would bankrupt us in a heartbeat."
Williams said buying bluff-front property is a buyer-beware situation.
"I would caution all those who would choose to live along the bluff to be aware of the fact that Mother Nature will take a toll along the bluff, especially ours where it is a sandy bluff," he said.
People who want to live along the bluff have a compelling incentive to accept the risk of erosion and buy the property anyway: the view.
Market trends and information from area real estate agents suggest bluff-front property is as valuable and sought-after as it has been, even with progressing erosion.
"I think people evaluate each lot individually so they're pretty realistic," said Glenda Feeken of ReMax of the Peninsula. "So if they want to live on the bluff, they're going to accept that challenge. It definitely does not kill the sales of those homes, because they want those views. Any place other than Kenai that would be a million-dollar view. People want that view, and people will pay for that view."
The market value of bluff property has not decreased due to erosion. If anything, the demand for bluff-front views has pushed values up.
"People want that view and there's very little land with it," Feeken said. "With the view, they have helped their value. The view just overrides everything else."
Even if some property is lost due to erosion, that doesn't necessarily mean a home's value will be decreased. According to Shane Horan, director of assessing with the Kenai Peninsula Borough, the borough lowers specific home values if market prices for homes and property in the area decrease. Since people are still buying and selling bluff property for as much, if not more, than they used to, assessed values are not reduced.
This can mean that some people have to pay the same amount of taxes on a piece of land that is actively eroding. The borough takes into account how much the property has been damaged and how much property is left in deciding whether to lower an assessed value for an eroded lot, Horan said.
"Once the damage starts taking a building, we definitely try to reflect that as soon as possible," he said. "... We have no intention to overassess anybody. We do our best in being fair and equitable in reflecting fair market value."
Horan added property owners can research their property files and the files of their neighbors and appeal their assessed values, although the borough hasn't seen many appeals on bluff property.
That is probably because homeowners knew what they were getting into and value their views more than their eroded yards.
"I get up every day and thank God that I have this spot," said Bob Peters, a Kenai bluff resident for 23 years. "I look out every day and find something out there that catches my attention, and I think 'I'm glad I live here.'"
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