By Jenny Neyman
Soldotna’s special assessment district process isn’t in as bad a shape as Lingonberry Lane becomes during breakup, but it, like the road, could use some improvement.
That was the consensus after the Soldotna City Council dealt with a petition from the neighborhood to form a special assessment district to upgrade the rustic road.
The council decided in a meeting Oct. 12 not to go ahead with the petition. Though the special assessment district process had only barely begun, the issue had gone far enough to determine that the policy could use some attention.
“This was my first SAD in the two years I’ve been on the council and it certainly raised an eyebrow on how things should be working. I’m not happy that a minority group of people can force the majority to do something, even though the way our current SAD reads, they can,” said council member Dale Bagley.
The issue came to the council over the summer, though problems with the road have been ongoing long before that. Lingonberry parallels the Kenai River and is used to access property in the Mullen Homestead and New Morning subdivisions, sandwiched between the Kenai River to the south, Swiftwater Park to the east, East Redoubt Avenue to the north and the Soldotna “Y” corridor to the west. This summer, it became a division running through neighborhood residents.
The road is a built-up version of first an airstrip, then a dirt track Marge and Frank Mullen put in to access the property they homesteaded since 1947. Some improvements have been made over the years — particularly when the road was extended to link up with Swiftwater Park Campground Road about 12 years ago, to allow neighborhood access from the east, rather than over the narrow, degrading bridge over Soldotna Creek to the west, which didn’t accommodate fire trucks or ambulances.
But it was not built to city road standards of today. To be fair, there was no city of Soldotna until it was incorporated in 1960, much less enforced road-building standards. Depending on conditions, the road is a bumpy ride to a tire-swallowing mud hole, and residents agree that they would like it upgraded.
There is not agreement over how to upgrade it, however. Likely to be the least-costly option would involve the neighbors deciding amongst themselves what level of improvement they’d like and hiring a private contractor to do the work. But that would mean maintenance — grading, plowing, etc. — would continue to be managed amongst the neighbors, and some residents think the road has not been adequately maintained in the past.
Marge Mullen has overseen the responsibility of arranging plowing, grading, etc., and collecting payment from neighborhood residents. That system isn’t ideal, for Mullen or neighbors who think more maintenance should be done.
“It’s like a Third World country,” said Billie Shackleton of the state of the road. “I’ve lived here 15 years and it’s always been a hassle. It wasn’t put in right in the first place, and so we are trying to fix it.”
“Mom has been doing that pretty much singlehandedly for pretty much 25 years. Hopefully someone else will step up and take that job out of her hands,” said Marge’s son, Frank Mullen, of Homer, who owns a parcel in the neighborhood. “It’s been kind of a nightmare because people don’t always pay, or sometimes they pay late. Of course, somebody needs to do it. Personally, I hope somebody volunteers to take on that responsibility and let my mom have a little peace and quiet.”
Brian Shackleton, Billie’s son, who also lives in the neighborhood, said that, lacking agreement among the neighbors about what to do with the road, he collected signatures and submitted a special assessment district petition to the city.
“There’s a pretty strong division between what people want to see. Some want to see the road stay private and do a little, tiny bit of improvement on our own, but it’s going to take money out of their pocket and I didn’t see a really clear consensus or agreement on that,” Shackleton said. “What I’m hoping for is to get the road to the minimum city standard so the city will take over the maintenance, so we don’t have recurring issues of the maintenance and how often it’s maintained and how much we’re going spend. … I understand why everyone lives here, truly it’s a fabulous place to live and I want to keep it that way. We just need a better road. I want it done right and done one time.”
If the council approved the request, the city would take over responsibility for the road and the council would have authority to decide what happens with it, including how much the city chips in to the cost of the road upgrades, versus how much neighborhood residents would be assessed. The city maintains a revolving roads fund to finance such projects, ultimately seeded with city tax dollars. SAD code stipulates the city may contribute up to 50 percent of the cost of SAD improvements, but the council could choose to contribute less. Considering this road services a small neighborhood, the city council may have decided not to pitch in the full 50 percent.
“For the small minority of people who live on this street who are going to share the costs, we also are going to share the costs. We’re not just talking about the cost the landowners will have to pay. Us, the city, will have to pay for part of this, as well. And bringing this road up to pavement standards, which is what I think we should do if we do it, costs a lot of money for a very small group of people. And I’m not convinced that, financially, this is worth it, just looking at the dollars,” said Councilman Kyle Fisher.
That brings up another area of council discretion if the city were to get involved through a SAD petition. The council also could decide on a more-elaborate scope of a project than residents may like. Upgrading the road to city standards would mean widening it and removing more trees alongside than some residents would prefer. Labor costs could also be higher. And since the city would be taking over maintenance responsibility after the upgrade, the council could decide to pave the road, since that’s generally cheaper to maintain than a gravel road.
All that would add to the cost of the project, and, thus, the bill assessed to neighborhood property owners. No firm cost estimates have been created, but the amount neighbors may have to pay thrown out for debate range from a few thousand dollars for a neighborhood-driven option to $100,000 or more if the city took over. The SAD code allows several opportunities for affected property owners to voice their wishes on the scope of the project or withdraw their support throughout much of the process, up to the point where a contractor is hired. But no matter the number of public hearings required by code, involving the city still takes away some authority by property owners, since the council could decide to override residents’ wishes.
Neighbors’ say in the process is the biggest bone of contention to surface from the Lingonberry SAD application. Specifically, that a minority of landowners, by number, can force a majority of their neighbors into an SAD process, potentially sticking them with a bill that could ring up to tens of thousands of dollars.
“The major point that I took away form the whole process was that the city ordinance as it exists right now is really awful. It requires a thin majority of 50 percent of folks based on assessed value, and it’s an incredibly flawed formula, and I very much hope that the city council will take a look at those flaws,” Mullen said. “If it hadn’t been so easy to abuse the city law we would never have had to go through that eight-month battle. If you have a bad law, you need to get people together, use their heads and change it.”
To submit a SAD petition, city code requires support of at least 50 percent of residents that would be affected by the proposed road improvement. That 50 percent is not calculated by number of landowners in a neighborhood, or number of parcels or amount of acreage. Rather, it’s based on assessed value. If there’s a neighborhood with disparity in the value of parcels — some worth significantly more than others — then a few of the pricey parcel owners can constitute a majority based on assessed value, over their more-numerous neighbors who own less-valuable lots. Along Lingonberry, values vary between river lots with big houses, parcels with more modest houses and undeveloped land. Mullen, for instance, still owns much of the acreage in the area, but most of it is undeveloped. She submitted a large swath of her undeveloped homestead land to conservation with the Kachemak Heritage Land Trust.
But even though Mullen owns a large number of acreage, and several parcels in the area, and she and others opposed to the SAD testified to the council that a majority, by number, of neighbors don’t support the petition, those who do were able to meet the 50 percent by assessed value threshold to get the SAD process started.
“Mom is really the majority landowner in the area,” Frank Mullen said. “If this proposal went through the process and the city did end up mandating the special assessment district it would really hurt her financially. She’s a senior citizen, one of Soldotna’s founding homesteaders, she lives on a fixed income, she can’t afford anything close to the assessment that would come along if the freeway option that the special assessment district brings with it comes to pass. It just seems pretty ridiculous that you would penalize a person who, for her entire life thought she was doing a good thing in trying to conserve her property,” Frank Mullen said. “She’s just not interested in accumulating wealth, but then she gets penalized in the end by an ordinance of the city she helped found.”
A further wrinkle is that once an SAD petition is approved, the way the assessments are applied is up to the council — again with neighbors’ input, but there is rarely agreement over that decision among those footing the bill, said City Manager Larry Semmens. The city’s SAD code stipulates that costs to landowners can be assessed in a variety of ways — including by number of lots, by square footage of lots, by road frontage of lots, or by some other method the council comes up with.
“The real question we never got to on this one was allocation of costs. There’s winners and losers in every single one of those decisions you make — property owner X is going to pay more or less,” Semmens said.
Soldotna’s SAD code is a little different than others on the peninsula in how neighbors’ support is counted. In Homer, an SAD petition must be supported by owners of at least half the value of property in the affected area. In Seward, it’s 50 percent of owners of property that will bear at least 50 percent of the estimated cost of improvements. In Kenai, it’s owners of 50 percent of the properties benefited. Soldotna is a combination of Homer and Seward — a petition may be initiated by owners of half, in value, of property to be benefited, and a petition is to include signatures of property owners who will bear 50 percent of the cost.
The trouble is twofold. Determining what property is included in an SAD can be a matter of debate, and could skew the 50 percent lines. In the Lingonberry SAD, for instance, should the Kachemak Land Trust parcel be counted? Determining which parcels to include usually isn’t the thorniest issue of an SAD, since most petitions come in with plenty of support, Semmens said. It’s rare that SADs come up at all — in Soldotna, the Lingonberry petition is the first in three years — and when they do, they usually aren’t close to the 50 percent threshold.
“A lot of time none of this stuff comes into play because there’s a large majority of property owners who want them (SADs),” Semmens said. “This is rare. Normally, you either can’t get 50 percent or a large majority is in favor of it.”
The biggest issue with the code as written is that the SAD process is initiated before engineering work is done to determine the scope and estimated cost of a project.
“How do you know who the owners that will bear 50 percent of the cost are at this state, when you don’t know cost of improvements, and you don’t know what the cost allocation method is going to be? You don’t know what the estimated cost of the improvement is if you don’t know what the allocation is, so you don’t know who the 50 percent are,” Semmens said. “So those are things that we are going to review. There are a few things along there that aren’t crystal clear to me. We’ll have to do research on what other people do and what makes sense for us.”
Semmens said he expects the council to address the city’s SAD policy sometime over the winter. It was last rewritten in 2007 and one SAD project — a paving project of the Dine Land and Ridgewood Drive area by Soldotna High School — has been completed under the current code.
“It works, it’s not as if there’s just gaping holes or anything. I think that we could have used this process that is in our code just fine, so we are not so lacking that it absolutely has to be overhauled before we have another special assessment district,” Semmens said. “But I think when you actually go through a process you find some areas that perhaps can be improved. That’s what we’re working through on this one.”
Semmens also said that, despite the Lingonberry petition not being pursued by the council, Soldotna is supportive of SAD petitions.
“The city is interested in participating in improving city streets, particularly taking gravel streets to pavement,” he said.
As for Lingonberry residents, it’s back to the drawing board. This time, a board among neighbors, rather than getting the city involved.
“We’re all hopeful we can get together over the winter and arrive at some solution that is mutually agreeable with the thick application of common sense,” Frank Mullen said.