Kenai seeks to make most of fishery

Posted: Friday, September 17, 2004

When the state of Alaska opened the mouth of the Kenai River to personal use dipnetting a decade ago, city officials never dreamed the fishery would become a defining feature of summer in their city. However, now that the fishery is here, Kenai must deal with the benefits and drawbacks of hosting what has in many ways turned into a three-week beach party.

Dipnet fishery improvements may include:

Paving north beach parking lot.

Adding electricity to north beach pay shack.

Implementing camping restrictions.

Replacing north beach outhouse.

Kenai Mayor John Williams likens the situation to a gift of lemons given to the city by the state. At Wednesday's Kenai City Council meeting, he said that since there are now thousands of people coming to town to dipnet, the city has been forced to try and make the best of its situation.

"We've been trying to make lemonade out of it ever since," he said.

At Wednesday's meeting, the city's final report on the 2004 dipnet season was released. It contains reports from the Kenai police, Public Works and Parks and Recreation departments, as well as color photos of the north and south Kenai beaches.

The report outlines the activity that took place on the beach, including how much money the city collected, what issues police and seasonal enforcement officers dealt with and how the city can improve the work it does down on the beach.

What it doesn't describe is the impact the fishery has had on local people who live and play on or near the beach. That information was provided Wednesday in the form of Jim White, who lives on a street directly above the north beach. White told the council he's concerned that the fishery has gotten a bit out of hand and said smoky campfires and all-night parties have combined to make his life less than a day at the beach during dipnetting

"You couldn't open the windows in your house," White said of the smoke from nonstop campfires wafting up toward his home.

In addition, people camping this summer tended to play loud music and stay up into the wee hours of the morning, keeping White and others in the neighborhood awake.

"The beach is for everybody, but I don't want to be in the party all the time," he said.

Kenai council members said they're listening to concerns from residents like White, who are beginning to tire of the party. They said the city's profit from parking and boat launch fees related to the fishery estimated in the report at more than $90,000 should go toward making the beach more accommodating to Kenai residents.

"The citizens of Kenai have participated in the fishery, sure, but they're also putting up with it," council member Joe Moore said. "I would really like to see us do all we can for the citizens of Kenai to make this fishery comfortable for them."

Some suggestions for im-proving the fishery were outlined in the city's report. They include such things as paving the north beach parking area, adding electrical power at the city-run pay shack at the north beach, not allowing camping between the waste water treatment plant to a point approximately one mile to the west and replacing the old outhouse on the north side.

Plans also are in the works to make significant improvements at the city's dock, including adding two additional launch ramps and building a new access road and turn lane. The ramp project is in the design phase, while the access road project still is in the planning stages and needs a proposed land swap to go forward.

Council members said they recognize the fishery has likely become a part of Kenai's culture. They said the job of the city now is to do everything in its power to make sure things stay under control.

"Some of those funds should be put right back into making the quality of life better for everyone," council member Pat Porter said.

The city's report also included a section from the Kenai Police Department outlining some of the enforcement work done at the river mouth. It notes that police and seasonal enforcement officers spent a total of 235 hours policing the area, the majority of which was done by the enforcement officers, who are responsible for enforcing city codes and maintaining a uniformed presence at the fishery.

In 2004, the report notes that officers handled 203 calls for service, a big jump from the 49 calls in 2003. However, the report notes that this figure is slightly misleading, because the 2004 figure includes daily iron ranger change-outs done by officers.

Still, the 2004 figure is a major increase from previous years. And the variety of calls officers responded to indicates the beach has nearly become a city unto itself.

"The 2004 calls for service included cash pick-ups multiple times daily from three pay shacks, plus iron ranger cash retrievals, hit-and-run complaints, illegal parking, complaints associated with campfires and littering, ATV and off-road vehicle operations, thievery, fights and disorderly conduct, and welfare checks," the report reads. "The department also investigated one water death-drowning of a north beach dipnetter in the mouth of the river, impounded eight vehicles, issued 18 citations and charged one person with negligent driving."

How the city will handle its "basket of lemons" is something the council, as well as the city's harbor and parks and recreation commissions, will be looking closely at during the coming months. However, Williams indicated that dealing with the large crowds that now flock to the beach is likely to be a tricky piece of business. He noted that the city is in a position more of trying to manage the crowds rather than control them entirely.

"If we shut them off in one place, they'll just show up in another," he said.

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