The city's proposed annexation that started out at 25.6 square miles, then shrank to 3.4 square miles, now is up to 3.9 square miles in the Alaska Department of Community and Economic Development's final recommendation to the Local Boundary Commission.
The commission will weigh that advice but is not bound to follow it when it takes up the annexation issue in Homer next month, said department spokesperson Dan Bockhorst.
"We're confident in our view, but you just can't say where things are going to go" with the independent commission, he said.
The release of the final recommendation last week marks the beginning of the final stages of the annexation process. It started two years ago when the Homer City Council instructed City Manager Ron Drathman to file the initial petition and continues when the boundary commission convenes in Homer to take public testimony on the idea. Hearings are set to begin at 9 a.m. Dec. 14, at the Mariner Theatre.
If the commission agrees with some level of annexation, it is likely to announce its decision that weekend, Bockhorst said, and pushes the final decision -- to uphold or reject -- to the Alaska Legislature.
The final recommendation incorporates suggestions and comments delivered after the preliminary recommendation was released last month. It adds a portion of the land the city had proposed for inclusion, expanding its preliminary recommendation by 0.6 square miles. That additional territory brings about $1 million in property value to the city. It also adds 23 residents, bringing the annexed area population to 898.
The city didn't get everything it wanted, however.
"We didn't agree with the city fully on any of the requests it made," Bockhorst said.
For example, Drathman had proposed adding a small triangle of land on Baycrest Hill that contains the Sterling Highway. Then the Homer City Council expanded his proposal to include several hundred acres below the triangle on the bluffs.
The final recommendation denies the council addition, but approves Drathman's initial request. The recommendation also denies the city's request to annex Hickerson Cemetery, on Diamond Ridge Road.
But the state not only gave the city all the additional land it sought near the city reservoir on Skyline Drive and at Scenic Place on East Skyline Drive, it added the road right of way to both parcels, giving the city control over all land south of Skyline Drive from West Hill Road to just past Scenic Place.
The final recommendation deletes an uninhabited 40-acre parcel from the proposed annex area at the request of Skyline Drive landowners John and Nancy Hillstrand. The preliminary recommendation had split their 118-acre parcel. But because they plan to leave it in a natural state and any future development would be subject to the city's extraterritorial water-protection powers in the Bridge Creek watershed, the 40-acre parcel was dropped, Bockhorst said.
It is not unusual for the department to alter its final recommendations in such a manner, he said.
"It demonstrates to me that we're paying attention and reviewing the comments" that come in, he added.
None of the comments lodged by annexation opponents moved the department to action, although two were deemed important enough that the department has asked the Alaska Attorney General's office to weigh in.
The first comment came from the Kenai Peninsula Borough, and was not unexpected, Bockhorst said. In it, the borough cites state law that says a fire or road service area may not be abolished without a vote of the service area residents. The borough contends that voter approval may be required before the city could annex the land.
The department disagrees, Bockhorst said, citing more than 40 years of legal precedent in Alaska. According to the final recommendation, the law says annexations such as this automatically overrule previous service areas and other municipal boundaries.
To be sure, he said, the department has asked the attorney general's opinion on the matter. The same goes for comments on whether the terms of city office holders should be truncated and new elections held.
Some annexation opponents believe newly annexed city residents should have a say in city government at the earliest possible time. The department again disagrees. It notes that the terms of three of the seven city officials, namely, council members Kurt Marquardt and Pat Cue and Mayor Jack Cushing -- expire in October, and that no terms should be shortened.
Still, the department asked the attorney general to provide a legal opinion on the issue.
"I think it's important for the commission to have total confidence in this issue," Bockhorst said, including independent verification of those legal questions from the attorney general.
Although the Department of Community and Economic Development has proposed the city annex 3.9 square miles, and the city council has acquiesced, that is only a recommendation, Bockhorst said. The Local Boundary Commission will consider the full 25.6 square miles originally proposed by the city.
The commission is scheduled to spend Dec. 13 touring the original proposed annexation area. Starting Dec. 14, the commission will hold public hearings in the Mariner Theatre. The hearings continue Dec. 15, and may continue into Dec. 16, if necessary.
The public hearing follows a prescribed timetable, and the commission chair can "regulate the time and content of testimony to exclude irrelevant or repetitious testimony," according to the published agenda for the meeting.
The city's opening statement is limited to 10 minutes, then the city can call in witnesses to support its petition. Afterward, the official respondents can make their opening statements and bring their own witnesses to testify. The city can then respond.
The general public can weigh in next, but each person is limited to three minutes of testimony. The anti-annexation group, Citizens Concerned About Annexation, is holding an open house from 5 to 9 p.m. Friday at Kachemak Community Center to help people prepare to give testimony. Spokesperson Abigail Fuller said the intent is to guide people toward issues and angles the commission considers relevant.
"The commission doesn't want to hear people say, 'I don't want this.' People need to explain why," Fuller said.
The hearing closes with statements by the city, by respondents, and finally by the city.
If the commission believes it has enough information to make a decision, it will, Bockhorst said. Otherwise, it will issue a decision when it has the information commission members feel they need, he said.
Joel Gay is the managing editor for the Homer News.
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