Trails powers proposition gets second opportunity

Posted: Sunday, September 28, 2003

For the second time in five years, Kenai Peninsula Borough voters will decide whether the borough should assume trails powers and whether property owners outside the cities should pay the costs.

The electorate rejected a similar measure in 1998 by 429 votes. This time, said one of the prime sponsors of the ordinance placing the issue before the voters, things could be different.

"It is in everybody's interest," said assembly member Milli Martin in August. "Why do we live here? It's to get out in this country, particularly in the winter. We have long winters and snowmachines are very popular. We need trails. I think this is overdue."

Martin said she believed the measure failed five years ago because private property owners weren't assured their land wouldn't be taken for trails. Language in the text of the ordinance creating the ballot measure specifically prohibits the trails service area board established by a "yes" vote from acquiring private property without a landowner's consent.

A "yes" vote would establish the Kenai Peninsula Borough Trails Service Area and enable the borough to accept, manage, build and maintain trails located within it. A seven-member service area board appointed by borough Mayor Dale Bagley and confirmed by the assembly would oversee acceptance, improvement, management, construction and maintenance of public trails within the service area.

They also would award grants for trails work subject to the availability of funds and work with local trails associations, commission, government agencies and the North Peninsula Recreation Service Area Board regarding trails development, the borough said.

A property tax mill levy of 0.1 mills, or $10 for each $100,000 of property value, is anticipated to fund the service area. However, the borough assembly has the final say regarding the level of taxation and would set the rate during the regular budgetary process.

Borough interest in trails has been well documented for several years. The borough's Comprehen-sive Plan notes public support for improving local trails and expanding the trails network for the benefit of the local and visiting public. A 1998 report from the Kenai Peninsula Borough Trails Com-mission led to the decision to put the issue before voters in 1998.

Voters said "no" then, but interest in trails has grown since 1998 and the system has been enlarged with the expansion of trails operated by private and public organizations.

It is not clear just how many miles of trails would be part of a trails service area, however. The trails commission in 2000 reported a partial inventory of about 100 miles of trails and routes used by the public. Some trails lack a clear, legally established right of public use, according to the trails commission. Establishing those rights on a firm legal footing would be among the jobs of a trails board and its hired coordinator.

Some trails traverse Native land. Martin has said Cook Inlet Region Inc. officials have expressed support for the borough assuming trails powers, saying they wished to work with the borough on trails issues, in part, because of the liability that currently exists where people already are using the trails.

Support for the trails service area idea is not unanimous among members of the assembly. Assem-bly President Pete Sprague of Soldotna said there are several reasons not to create another agency of government.

He said he is concerned about adding another mill levy to residents' tax burden.

He also said he has concerns residents of the North Peninsula Rec-reation Service Area would be taxed twice. While there has been discussion about not overlapping taxes, "there's a lot of gray in that area," Sprague said.

Sprague's opposition goes beyond the possible tax implications.

"I argued that we can do now virtually everything we are being asked in the ballot proposition," he said.

The borough already has accepted state grants for trail improvements and used land trust money to match grants, he said, adding he believes borough road powers already allow the borough to expand trail head areas.

"If we can match state funds for trails with borough funds now, why do we need an additional service area to do this?" he said.

Finally, Sprague said the borough trails commission, which has gotten little in the way of support in recent years, could perform most of the functions of a service area board if it got the backing it needs to do that job.

Assembly member Gary Super-man of Nikiski said he would have supported the ordinance and ballot measure had the assembly agreed to exclude the North Peninsula Recreation Service Area. As he sees it, north peninsula residents already are handling trails issues and have successfully raised funds, secured grants and done maintenance on area trails and don't want to start paying twice for the same service.

The ordinance creating the service area calls for the service area board to coordinate work with other organizations, such as the North Peninsula Recreation Ser-vice Area, to avoid duplication of services. But Superman said he never has heard a good explanation of how that would be assured. He also said he has heard no overwhelming outcry for new trails in the Nikiski area.

"If there were, the service area would already be addressing them," he said.

If the need for a trails service area is questionable in the Nikiski area, it's more of a sure thing elsewhere, according to supporters.

"Developing and managing a trails system can be daunting," said Lindsay Winkler of the Homer Soil and Water Conservation District. "It's not impossible, but the permitting phase, the construction and maintenance are definitely a process. Having an entity like the borough that can refine and make the process go more smoothly for local groups working these projects can only be beneficial."

As to concerns over duplication of services, Winkler said the approach being taken with the proposed service area would be key in ensuring that does not happen. How the borough defines the service area will answer that question. Right now no one really knows if duplication of services would become a problem, she said.

"If we don't take a chance, we are never going to know," she said. "There is an established need for an entity to manage trails out here."

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