Sterling community gives plan to assembly members

Posted: Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Sterling residents say they like the rural atmosphere and small-town feel of their unincorporated community, but they don't like lacking the kind of official voice that incorporated municipalities enjoy, according to the recently completed Sterling Community Plan.

That plan promotes as its first goal support of a coalition of seniors, businesses, clubs, schools, churches, organizations and the like that would develop a community consensus. It also supports approaching the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly with a resolution acknowledging the coalition as Sterling's official voice.

On Oct. 12, the assembly gave a nod to the Sterling plan, though it did not extend recognition to any particular group. Resolution 2004-101 stated the contents of the plan would "be taken into consideration" as the borough develops and implements its own comprehensive plan, itself undergoing a periodic update.

Assembly members said their unanimous action amounted neither to approval nor disapproval of the Sterling plan, only that its contents would be taken into account within the larger context of the borough's comprehensive plan.

A main objective of the borough's plan is to aid communities in the development of local plans, such as Sterling's, by obtaining funding for community services and facilities. The Sterling plan was completed with the help of grant money through Kenai Peninsula Borough Economic Development District Inc.

Located along the Sterling Highway at the junction of the Moose and Kenai rivers about 18 miles east of Kenai, Sterling has no official boundaries.

The 2000 census counted 4,705 residents in the area. It lists the area as encompassing about 77 square miles of land and 2.1 miles of water and having a total of 2,554 households, with 1,676 currently occupied.

Sterling Elementary School enrolls about 210 students in grades kindergarten through six. Another 40 children attend the Sterling Head Start program.

Sterling enjoyed a boom during the 1950s when oil exploration began in the Swanson River area. But as that industry declined, homes built in the oil field area were abandoned, the community plan said. Today, the economy is based on sportfishing, recreation, some oil and gas processing, timber, retail employment and government.

The plan lists several goals beyond the call for an official voice.

It calls for research leading to the establishment of official boundaries.

It promotes community safety and pride by, among other things, calling for a lobbying effort to encourage the state to "redesign" its hazardous post office intersection, and development of community programs, such as a Neighborhood Watch Program.

It supports the continued development of community property and the acquisition and development of property on Scout Lake for a Sterling community park.

Promoting economic development and the responsible development of private land is another goal outlined in the plan, though Sterling residents say they would prefer that to occur "without government intrusion." Among other things, the plan calls for a feasibility study on a swimming pool and therapeutic pool and spa.

The plan promotes improvements to transportation and community infrastructure, including public restrooms, a bridge across the Kenai River to Funny River, support of a highway bypass around Cooper Landing, a partnership with the state so area parks can be open during winter months for local use, and a lobbying effort to widen the Sterling Highway between Soldotna and Sterling to four lanes.

Work on the Sterling Community Plan began in the mid-1990s and over the next several years involved numerous public meetings and a community survey. A group known as the Sterling Community Action Team assembled the plan. Among its members was assembly member Grace Merkes of Sterling, a Vista volunteer.

Assembly member Paul Fischer of Kasilof inquired as to whether the action team held any legal status insofar as the borough was concerned. Attorney Colette Thompson said the group had no formal relationship with the borough, but rather with the EDD through its grant.

Merkes said the team is not the same thing as the coalition envisioned in the plan. That group has yet to be formed, she said.

"There has been a lot of input on this plan from the community," she said. "Information came from the community meetings that we had. We had goals and objectives, our priorities and that kind of stuff, and this is the outcome of those meetings."

While the assembly has said it would consider its contents and goals, the Sterling plan won't be incorporated verbatim into the borough comprehensive plan document, at least not yet.

By state law, Thompson said, the comprehensive plan process requires approval by the borough planning commission, which has not taken any formal action on the Sterling plan other than lending its recommendation to the resolution adopted by the assembly last week.

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