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Goodbye 2007

Year leaves plenty for residents to remember

Posted: Monday, December 31, 2007

"May you live in interesting times," the saying goes. Well, 2007 proved to be an interesting year on the Kenai Peninsula.

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  Firefighters work in June to protect structures from a wildfire in the Caribou Hills near Ninilchik. Both fire and ice threatened property owners this year. Clarion file photo

 

Firefighters work in June to protect structures from a wildfire in the Caribou Hills near Ninilchik. Both fire and ice threatened property owners this year.

Clarion file photo

From a divisive borough election to a wildfire in the Caribou Hills, 2007 was marked by events complex and confounding.

In 2007, we dealt with ice jamming on the Kenai River.

A 55,000 wildfire attracted national attention.

Elementary schools in Kenai were consolidated, a move representative of a peninsulawide demographic trend.

Various user groups continued to work toward a solution to hydrocarbon pollution on the Kenai River, though it sometimes appeared that efforts to remedy problems were battling a heavy current.

We lost some of our local heroes to plane and helicopter crashes and to cancer, but we found new ones as National Guardsmen returned from deployment to Kuwait.

 

After a long and unsuccessful battle to secure enough natural gas to supply its plant, Agrium closed its Nikiski fertilizer facility last fall.

Clarion file photo

At the state level, a new governor called for a new tax on oil companies and pushed for a new deal for a natural gas pipeline from the North Slope an issue deeply affecting the peninsula, where Agrium, one of the borough's biggest employers, shut down operations due to insufficient gas supplies.

 

Deanna Miller's 20-day-old son, Spencer, right, yawns as Miller casts her vote during an April election concerning benefits for the domestic partners of gay public employees. The political landscape was anything but boring during the previous year.

Clarion file photo

Even the good news wasn't easy to interpret. The school district became the first large district in the state to make adequate yearly progress under federal guidelines -- as complex a set of standards as can be -- and an education task force recommended changes to the equally interesting formula used to distribute funding to districts around the state.

Here is a look at the people and events that held our interest in 2007.

Peninsula politics

If any words spring to mind concerning elements of the 2007 municipal election they might be complicated and controversial.

Assembly incumbents Gary Superman of Nikiski, Pete Sprague of Soldotna, and Paul Fischer of Kasilof, all of whom have spent many years on the assembly, easily won re-election in their districts.

But boroughwide, voters also passed Proposition 2, a ballot initiative sponsored by the Alliance of Concerned Taxpayers that sought to limit assembly members to no more than two consecutive terms. Its provisions were retroactive, counting terms already served. A similar measure, Proposition 3, did the same for school board seats, and affected two of three winning candidates, Sammy Crawford of Kalifornsky Beach and Sunni Hilts of Seldovia.

Facing a dilemma about which groups of votes to honor, the assembly chose not to act, allowing members to continue serving but not swearing in the winners. The school board seated Crawford and Hilts, citing state law which grants power to change school board eligibility criteria to the Legislature.

Local attorney Dale Dolifka filed suit asking the Kenai Superior Court to seat the winning assembly incumbents.

ACT also filed a suit seeking a court order upholding the ballot initiative language banning the three incumbents from taking office.

Finding itself a defendant in both suits, the assembly voted to seat the election winners, disposing of the Dolifka suit and leaving the borough to defend only against the ACT suit, which is still pending.

Two other ballot measures were on the ballot. Proposition 1 capped the senior property tax exemption at the first $300,000 of assessed value. It had been unlimited. Proposition 4 approved bonds for a Bear Creek Fire Service Area project.

Legislature

Newly elected Gov. Sarah Palin took office in early December 2006, and in the 12 months since has emerged as a popular pragmatist.

The Legislature, previously dominated by Republicans and divided strictly along party lines, lined up somewhat differently. State senators formed a bipartisan coalition that picked Sen. Lyda Green, R-Wasilla, as president and included Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak. On the outside was Sen. Tom Wagoner, R-Kenai.

By late May, state lawmakers had approved a $1.7 billion state capital spending plan for FY 2008 that included some $33.6 million for peninsula House Districts 33, 34 and 35. But that wasn't the end of their work.

Palin called for a special session beginning in October to take another look at the controversial Petroleum Production Tax law, or PPT, passed during former Gov. Frank Murkowski's administration. Concern that its provisions would not produce the tax revenue expected, coupled with an ongoing legislative corruption scandal contributed to Palin's decision.

This fall, lawmakers met for a 30-day special session and adopted a new tax law, called Alaska's Clear and Equitable Share law, or ACES, that altered many of the provisions of the PPT, and among other things, raising the base tax rate from 22.5 percent to 25 percent.

By year's end, lawmakers were making plans to return to Juneau by Jan. 15, opening day of the now truncated, 90-day session scheduled to end April 13. Several members of the peninsula's delegation, including Reps. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, Kurt Olson, R-Soldotna, and Paul Seaton, R-Homer, were predicting difficulty ahead in accomplishing all the work in the shorter session and said a special session was possible.

One of the things that might force the Legislature into a special session would be selecting a gas pipeline construction plan. Five companies, including Alaska Gasline Port Authority, AEnergia LLC, TransCanada, Sinopec ZPEB and Alaska Natural Gas Development Authority, recently submitted plans to Palin's office under the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act, and a sixth, ConocoPhillips, submitted a plan outside AGIA's provisions.

Following a review now ongoing, Palin is expected to send one or more of those plans to the Legislature.

Resources

Southcentral Alaska is running out natural gas, and that unavoidable fact is behind the drive to build a gas pipeline from the North Slope that includes a spur to the Cook Inlet region.

The decline of the Cook Inlet gas field has already had an impact on the peninsula economy. Agrium USA is in the process of shutting down its Nikiski fertilizer plant and laying off workers, many of them from high-paying positions. The loss will impact the general economy as well as the tax revenue stream to the borough, cities and service areas.

Borough Mayor John Williams, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly, state lawmakers and others are supporting renewed efforts at tapping Cook Inlet reserves known to exist, and further exploration for new pockets of gas.

Assembly

In the normal course of business, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly appropriates funds necessary to accomplish the day-to-day operations of the borough, repair roads, collect trash, and maintain schools and fund various projects. Last June, members adopted a $62 million budget, including $37.7 million for schools.

They also cut the property tax rate to 5.5 mills, but voted to raise the sales tax to 3 percent come January.

The assembly also tackled some tougher matters, some of them controversial. They approved a 1-percent sales tax increase, to 3 percent, in April to take effect Tuesday. That increase has now been challenged in Kenai Superior Court by the Alliance of Concerned Taxpayers who are seeking an injunction to prevent its taking effect, while the court considers and rules on an earlier suit filed late last year challenging the basis upon which the borough rests its right to raise the tax without a public vote.

In May, the assembly approved a ballot measure later approved by voters capping the senior property tax exemption at $300,000 in assessed value. The measure did not impact the unlimited exemption still extended to disabled veterans.

In August, the assembly approved spending $14.7 million in bond proceeds for the South Peninsula Hospital expansion project (Phase 1). But a major stumbling block emerged when it was learned that Phase 1, by then nearly complete, had been constructed without a necessary state document called a Certificate of Need. Although an application was quickly filed coupling Phases 1 and 2 together, in November, state officials denied the CON for the second phase, a $17 million project. The borough and the hospital are now in negotiations with the state in an attempt to get a new CON. At the moment, however, further work on the project has been halted. The hospital has been granted permission to occupy the Phase 1 portions.

In a related matter, the assembly in August adopted an ordinance realigning how the borough, the hospital corporation, and the South Peninsula Hospital Service Area Board interact. In short, the borough took back central control over financial issues and placed it in the hands of the administration. That led several members of the SAB to resign and open seats up for election to draw no candidates. Since then, however, a full board has been appointed.

Caribou Hills wildfire

Dead spruce trees and dry brush on the Kenai Peninsula waited for a spark to go up in flames last summer, and a spark is what it got. A California man's mishap with a grinder ignited dead grass, spawning what would become the Caribou Hills Wildfire.

The 100-acre fire was first reported at 5:34 p.m. on June 19, and despite firefighter's efforts, hot temperatures and an abundance of fuel allowed the fire to grow. The next day, flames spread from 1,000 acres in the morning to more than 4,000 by that night; fire surrounded Deep Creek on the north and south while flames licked power lines. On June 21, the fire was at 12,000 acres and had jumped Deep Creek. The fire generated a plume of smoke so high the sun was crimson by 6 p.m. in Kenai and the blaze rained ash on Homer.

As many as 588 firefighters, some from other parts of Alaska and the Lower 48, showed up to lend a hand, but the flames were unstoppable. By June 15, at 50,000 acres, the flames cut a swath within miles of Tustumena Lake to the north and Caribou Lakes to the southeast. By the time firefighters gained the upper hand, the fire was at 55,000 acres.

Kenai Peninsula residents, many of them owners of recreational cabins in the Caribou Hills area, watched anxiously as the fire consumed 88 residences and 109 outbuildings. Some used garden hoses and buckets of water to keep the flames at bay. Tim Osmar, 2001 Yukon Quest Champion, sustained a shattered ankle and broken leg, but managed to save his cabin. When the fire passed, the Alaska Division of Forestry opened Oil Well Road on June 26 to roughly 92 cars in a 15-minute period as cabin-owners ventured past blackened spruce stands and smoldering brush to see what was left of their property.

Despite his efforts to put the fire out, Charles Partridge Jr. of Santa Maria, Calif., faces misdemeanor charges for failing to exercise due care to prevent the spread of fire. Partridge and his wife, Candice, were building a cabin as a wedding present for their son and his fiance in the Caribou Hills Area. When Partridge used a hand-held grinder to remove the plastic coating off a shovel, the sparks from the grinder landed on dead grass, resulting in the blaze. Partridge and his wife tried fighting the blaze, sustaining minor burns in the process, and ultimately had to be rescued by helicopter.

Forestry officials pegged the cost to fight the blaze at more than $3.9 million.

Motors and 50 horses

The Department of Natural Resources' approval of a regulation that would ban two-stroke motors in the Kenai River Special Management Area (KRSMA) generated mixed responses from local anglers. The regulation also allowed anglers to increase their power from 35 to 50 horsepower so long as they used four-stroke or direct fuel injected two-stroke motors. DNR approved this regulation after the Kenai River was listed as a Category 5 impaired waterbody by the Environmental Protection Agency. The regulation was designed to combat hydrocarbon levels in the river during the month of July, which exceeded the state mandate of 10 parts per billion. The horsepower increase was proposed to combat erosion problems along the riverbank.

For some anglers, mainly guides, the increase in power couldn't come fast enough. Banning two-stroke motors on the river didn't hurt many guides either because they were already using the appropriate motor. Ricky Geese, executive director for the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, said he felt the new regulation would be good for the river because it would get the older, more polluting technology off the river. He also said the increase in power is a good thing for anglers because most are using detuned motors originally designed to run at 50 horsepower.

Many longtime recreational fishermen find themselves kicked off the river. With new motors going for $5,000 to $6,000, many anglers simply couldn't afford the upgrade. Brian Bell, who had fished the Kenai River using a two-stroke motor for 30 years, said he'd rather book a fishing charter rather than fork over thousands of dollars for a new motor.

"I only need one king to tide me through this summer," he said in June. "I can catch all the reds I want fishing from the bank."

There were still others who questioned the need to increase the speed from 35 to 50 horsepower, saying that the increased speed puts more hydrocarbons in the river not less. Ed Krohn, who authored a proposal in 1999 that banned power boats on the river on Mondays, said removing the powerboats completely would solve the erosion and pollution problem.

DNR's regulation also sparked similar proposals for the personal-use fishery below the Warren Ames Bridge, including a joint proposal put forth by the Soldotna and Kenai city councils as well as the Kenai Peninsula Borough. That proposal awaits a decision from the Board of Fisheries in February.

The peninsula mourns

When a Lifeguard helicopter carrying three of the Kenai Peninsula's own never made it to Providence Medical Center in Anchorage after picking up a patient in Cordova on Dec. 3, the community watched anxiously while rescue workers combed the stormy waters of Prince William Sound for clues. For a week members of the United States Coast Guard, the Alaska State Troopers and others searched for signs of flight nurse John Stumpff, 47, of Sterling, pilot Lance Brabham, 42, of Soldotna, Central Emergency Services paramedic Cameron Carter, 25, of Kenai, and their patient, Gaye McDowell of Cordova.

Friends and family said goodbye to Stumpff, Brabham and Carter on Dec. 16 at a community memorial held at Central Peninsula Hospital.

Retired Alaska State Trooper Commander Randy Crawford died in January after the plane he had been flying went down over Cook Inlet. The plane was retrieved intact from an ice floe, but Crawford was not found.

Crawford had been making a cargo run from Kenai to Kokhimak in an Air Supply Alaska LCC leased Cessna 207 when it started to have engine trouble. Crawford made a Mayday call to the FAA flight tower at Kenai Municipal Airport.

Popular athletic coach and educator Cliff Massie was honored with the renaming of the Kenai Central High School basketball court for him. A one-time Kenai councilman and school board member, Massie spent much of his career as a coach and athletic director at KCHS, where he worked from 1968 until past his retirement in 1988.

Massie died in July at age 70 following a one-year battle with pancreatic cancer.

City of Kenai

Central Kenai Peninsula travelers passing through the Kenai Municipal Airport saw some welcome changes this year.

In January, the mother-daughter team of Sherry and Teea McBride took over operation of the airport's eatery the Kenai Cafe having previously managed the K-Beach Diner on Kalifornsky Beach Road in Kenai.

Likely more important to pilots, the airport also got a revamped runway. To comply with Federal Aviation Administration safety rules, the existing airport was shortened at the south end and lengthened at the north. A new parallel taxiway was built also and the float-plane basin was extended.

The new runway opened to commercial traffic in mid-September.

The city of Kenai reached an agreement with the Alaska Division of Fire Prevention in January to take over management of the Pacific Rim Institute of Safety Management fire training facility after AAI Services Inc. did not renew its contract.

The PRISM center provides vocational courses in aircraft and industrial fire training, health and safety management and maritime fire-fighting. Between 1,600 and 2,000 people are trained there each year.

Huge ice floes in the Kenai River knocked a 100-foot barge from its moorings at the Snug Harbor Seafoods dock and the barge sank in the navigable channel of the river near its mouth.

The barge was eventually refloated and towed back to the dock where it sank again. Some ice chunks had pierced the barge's hull.

City of Soldotna

Central Peninsula Hospital opened its new Mountain Tower wing and began renovation of the existing hospital.

The new wing features 38 new spacious private rooms each with a large picture window, custom maple cabinets and a fold out couch for visitors to sleep over. The new wing also features three surgical suites with state of the art equipment and a new laboratory. There are also two family lounges with rock fireplaces, and a new sanctuary.

Phase 3 of the CPH expansion began in February with finishing the new entrance lobby and building a new dining area and gift shop. The renovation of the Emergency Department is scheduled to be completed by May 2008.

Stanley Ford Inc. opened April 2, about two weeks after Great Bear Ford shut its doors. The dealership on the Sterling Highway near the Soldotna "Y" was purchased by Tony Stanley from Bob Favretto, who also owns the Kenai Chrysler Center. Stanley owns a number of new and used car dealerships in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau.

The Public Safety Communications Center opened in April on the upper floor of the new Kenai Peninsula Borough Emergency Services building on Wilson Lane in Soldotna, providing about three times the space of the former dispatch center, which was at the Alaska State Troopers E Detachment headquarters on Kalifornsky Beach Road.

Dispatching for an area of approximately 25,000 square miles, the 14-person dispatch crew serves the troopers as well as the Soldotna Police Department, Central Emergency Services, Nikiski Fire Department, Emergency Medical Services for Ninilchik, Cooper Landing, Bear Creek and Hope, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, Alaska Probations and the Department of Corrections.

Two non-profit health agencies, Central Peninsula Health Centers and Central Peninsula Counseling Services, came together to occupy the new Peninsula Community Health Center at Tyee Street and Marydale Avenue in Soldotna.

In the not too distant future, the agencies may join operationally to provide integrated physical and behavioral health care to residents in the Kenai and Soldotna areas. The new health center opened Nov. 10.

After a number of delays some caused by Mother Nature and some man-made the new Sterling Highway bridge across the Kenai River in Soldotna finally opened at the end of June.

Traffic was diverted from the old bridge onto a temporary bridge across the river two years earlier before the old bridge was removed by Wilder Construction and work began on building the new one.

Several members of the public attending a Soldotna City Council meeting this summer launched an initial salvo of complaints about the Timberwolf condominiums under construction on the former site of the Timber Wolf Lodge between Soldotna's main thoroughfare and the Kenai River.

Complaints ranged from the fact that one of the two-story condo buildings along the Sterling Highway is being built too close to the road, to complaints that the condos will create crowding and safety issues in the center of town and tax the city's infrastructure including water and sewer services.

Schools

The school district in February, facing declining enrollment and more alternatives for fewer students moved ahead with plans to consolidate Mountain View and Sears elementary schools in Kenai.

The district got some good news over the summer, becoming the first large school district in Alaska to make adequate yearly progress under federal No Child Left Behind guidelines. Good news also came from Juneau, where and education task force recommended changes to the way in which the state funds education that would benefit the district.

Peninsula Optional High School opened in Soldotna in the fall, offering up to 40 students an opportunity they might not have had at a traditional high school they were attending.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education approved student performance standards for the new Peninsula Optional High School, which opened in two mobile classroom buildings being vacated by the school district's Connections Home School Program on Park Avenue between the district administration building and Soldotna Elementary School.

Courthouse changes

A number of judicial appointments changed the look of the Kenai Courthouse bench during the past year.

Carl Bauman was appointed to fill the Superior Court judgeship vacated when Judge Harold Brown retired in June, after serving as a Superior Court judge in Kenai for 11 years.

Judge Anna Moran, who had been a District Court magistrate in Kenai, was appointed to a newly created Superior Court judgeship in March, and in June, Sharon Illsley was appointed as a District Court judge, replacing David Landry.

In July, Illsley was seriously injured when she was thrown 50 feet off a motorcycle she was riding on Funny River Road.

Barry McCormack will likely spend the rest of his life behind bars for the murder of Opal Fairchild 21 years ago.

Convicted last spring by a Kenai Jury, the 56-year-old McCormack was sentenced in January to 99 years without parole.

Kenai resident Shawn Rogers was sentenced in June to five years in jail with 18 months suspended for the 2004 shooting death of Brian Black in a Beluga tavern. The jury found Rogers not guilty of first-degree murder as charged, but guilty of manslaughter in the death of Black.

The 37-year-old Sterling man who pleaded "no contest" to fatally stabbing his brother 2 1/2 years ago, was sentenced in May to five years in prison with one year suspended. Upon release he will be on probation for four years.

Jesse Gibson had accepted a plea arrangement charging him with manslaughter in the death of his younger brother Paul.

Brenda Cameron's insurance company agreed to pay $83,761 as settlement in the Cohoe Loop wildfire case in exchange for the state dropping the three misdemeanor charges against her: being in violation of terms of a burn permit, inadequate fire break and uncontrolled spread/damage to the property of another.

The charges against Cameron, 45, came in the aftermath of the 2006 fire that started when a brush pile fire she was burning reportedly got away from her.

The Kenai bookkeeper who pleaded guilty to embezzling thousands of dollars from Salamatof Seafoods and other Kenai firms was sentenced in November to 10 years in jail with five years suspended.

Sheryl Dilley, 37, entered guilty pleas in July on first-degree theft and scheme to defraud charges class B felonies and tampering with physical evidence and falsifying business records class C felonies.

She was sentenced to eight years with four suspended, to be served concurrently, on the two class B felonies and two years, with one suspended, to be served concurrently on the class C felonies. The two-year sentences are to be served following the eight-year sentences. Upon release from jail, Dilley will be on probation for 10 years.

A restitution hearing was tentatively scheduled for Jan. 8.

The Kenai man who admitted to crashing his vehicle into the Soldotna Skateboard Park last year was sentenced to three months in jail and ordered to pay $1,790 in restitution for the damage he caused.

Rather than be tried on charges including third-degree criminal mischief and driving under the influence, Brian McCoy, 24, entered into a plea agreement in December 2006.

Odds and ends

With an investment of $63 million, Tesoro officially opened its new Distillate Desulfurization Unit at the company's Kenai Refinery in June.

The refinery is now the only producer of ultra-low sulfur diesel in Alaska.

Eight single-family houses were built in Sterling as part of a U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development low-income housing program.

Built near the corner of south Scout Lake Loop and Lou Morgan roads, the homes range from 1,064 square-foot three-bedroom to 1,480 square-foot four-bedroom houses.

An additional 10 Rural Development homes are planned for Kenai next year.

Clarion reporters Hal Spence, Phil Hermanek, Jessica Cejnar, Joseph Robertia and City Editor Will Morrow contributed to this story.



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