A push to make the Sterling Highway between Skilak Lake Road and Anchor Point a state Scenic Byway hit a major roadblock Tuesday when the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly rejected a resolution in support of the designation.
Supporters of the designation sought the assembly's support as a way to build momentum toward having the stretch of road included in the National Scenic Byways program. However, four of the eight assembly members in attendance Tuesday night said they didn't feel like such a designation would be in the borough's best long-term interest and is not supported by the general public.
"It sounds like a great idea, but the people I've seen don't support it," said assembly member Grace Merkes of Sterling.
Merkes, along with Kasilof's Paul Fischer, Nikiski's Gary Superman and Kenai's Betty Glick, voted against the measure. Voting in support were Pete Sprague of Soldotna, Milli Martin of Diamond Ridge, Chris Moss of Homer and Dan Chay of Kenai. Ron Long of Cooper Landing was absent.
Because a resolution must pass by a majority vote, support of the designation failed in the tie.
Martin introduced the resolution and was one of its biggest supporters. Before the vote, she said the designation would help the area's tourism industry by increasing the visibility of the transportation corridor between Cooper Landing and Homer.
"It is going to get us on the map nationwide," Martin said.
A number of people spoke in favor of the designation, including consultants hired with money from a grant received by the city of Homer to pursue the designation, the executive directors of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Economic Development District and the Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council and Soldotna Mayor Dave Carey.
Consultant Nancy Casey of Soldotna said a national designation would enable the borough or any private groups to apply for federal grant money for improvements to the road like additional signage and improved rest areas.
"It's about finding ways to improve things for users," Casey said.
Four members of the public spoke against the resolution, including Ninilchik's Ruby Kime, who's been a vocal opponent of the project since its inception. Kime told the assembly that the designation would only allow the federal government to have more control over private lands within the borough.
"This is not a benign thing that will go away," Kime said.
She said she was not alone in her opposition. She said everyone she talked to along the route was against the designation. Although those people did not attend the meeting, Kime said their opposition to the designation was strong.
"Just because they do not show up does not mean they are not adamant in their opposition," she said. Consultant Chris Mertl said fears of increased federal control were unjustified. The Scenic Byway program, he said, is not a way to bring in federal control at all. Instead, it's simply a way to increase awareness of areas that have superior recreation or scenic qualities.
"The byway designation is about recognition, not regulation," Mertl said. "I will promise there will be no land use or zoning regulations on private land."
The argument that the designation would help out the tourism industry did not seem to hold much water with those assembly members voting against the resolution. Fischer said he believes the area already is overrun with tourists in the summertime, and to highlight the area's opportunities might add to existing traffic problems.
"How much tourism do we really want for our world class salmon in the summer?" Fischer asked.
Glick agreed and said that unless more is done to accommodate tourists, nothing needs to be done to attract more.
"Until we do something else, I don't know why we think we need to have this kind of designation to include or attract more tourists," she said.
Following the vote, Martin gave notice that she plans to bring the resolution up for reconsideration. As the eight assembly members who voted Tuesday seem adamant in their stances, it's likely such a reconsideration will come down to Long's vote.
Following the vote, supporters of the designation said they aren't done working toward their goal and are hopeful the assembly will eventually pass the measure.
"We're in overtime now," said Ann Marie Holen, special projects coordinator for the city of Homer.
Supporters of the measure said the assembly's fears were unjustified and that they were somewhat taken aback by the lack of support they received.
"There are no real hidden agendas or negatives people are talking about," Mertl said. "I'm just surprised."
Mertl said that without the borough's support, it's likely the state designation will not become a reality. And without state designation, he said the inclusion of the Sterling Highway in the national program is unlikely.
"Essentially, the project stops."
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