Two Kenai attorneys were the most outspoken among 60 people who turned out for a Planning and Zoning Commission meeting Wednesday night to talk about plans for a Wal-Mart super center in Kenai.
Joseph Skrha stopped just short of threatening a lawsuit, and Kristine Schmidt questioned what planners said their role was in reviewing Wal-Mart’s lease application.
Marilyn Kebschull, Kenai city planner, opened the meeting by saying the planning commission is charged with assuring the planned use of the property to be leased is permitted under the city code and is in accordance with the city’s comprehensive plan.
Late last month, Chuck Kopp, interim city manager, announced Wal-Mart signed a lease application to build a 235,000 square-foot combination grocery and general merchandise store on 37 acres of airport property behind Kenai Chrysler Center.
John Hammelman, who chaired the meeting Wednesday, told the unusually large audience in attendance they would be allowed to speak, but asked that people limit their comments to three minutes and confine their remarks to whether the intended use complies with the city code. He said the lease application will be taken up at a city council meeting Nov. 16.
“I disagree with your view of what your role is,” said Schmidt, who then read from the city code.
Schmidt said it was up to the commission to assure that the proposed use for property is the “highest and best use” for that property.
Echoing that sentiment, Skrha said, “We feel the city is abridging its duty and responsibility.
“It’s your duty to determine what is the highest and best use of that land.
“If it comes to a lawsuit, you as a body will stand liable for your action,” he said.
In October, Kopp said he anticipates a store the size proposed by Wal-Mart could bring “a couple hundred jobs” to the city, as well as $1 million a year in tax receipts.
Other residents who addressed the planning commission asked about potential impacts the Wal-Mart plan would have on wetlands, whether Wal-Mart would need to meet landscaping requirements, into what city fund lease revenue would go and what the actual store building would look like.
A number of residents spoke in favor of Wal-Mart coming to Kenai.
“The highest and best use is in the eye of the beholder,” said Jason Carroll, who also said “virtually every business owner here favors Wal-Mart coming in.”
He said business owners with whom he has spoken believe Wal-Mart will bring retail traffic to Kenai and consequently more business to them.
Phil Osborne, who said he has resided in Kenai “since the first sidewalk went in,” said the land being proposed for the new store has been nothing more than a “moose pasture” as long as he can remember.
“I feel this is the best use of this land,” Osborne said.
Roy Wells, president of the Kenai Chamber of Commerce, said one of the considerations of best use is “to have something the community sorely needs.”
“The best use is to supply some retail to the community,” Wells said.
Jim Fassler said he agrees Kenai needs more retail shopping opportunities, but he said he did not feel it should be Wal-Mart.
“Wal-Mart undercuts wage levels and limits employees’ hours so they can’t get benefits,” Fassler said.
Tom Adams, a consulting engineer for Lounsbury and Associates Inc., speaking on behalf of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., told the commission many of the site plan issues, such as wetlands, landscaping and building design, will come up at other stages during the permitting process.
“We are willing to work with the city to attempt to resolve many of these issues,” Adams said.
Craig Fanning, director of The Salvation Army in Kenai, said he believes Wal-Mart is something that is needed in Kenai.
“I may threaten to sue if you don’t process this,” Fanning said with a laugh.
People in the audience responded with applause.
After hearing people’s comments for nearly one hour, Hammelman turned the matter back to the commission.
Phil Bryson made a motion stating the intended use complies with the city’s zoning ordinances and comprehensive plan and should be forwarded to the city council.
The motion was approved unanimously.
Hammelman said any appeal to the Planning and Zoning Commission needs to be submitted in writing within 15 days.
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