By Jenny Neyman
The Soldotna City Council has a lot of questions regarding the possibility of annexing land to expand its cramped, 7.5-mile footprint — What areas would be appropriate to consider? What would be the costs versus the benefits? And how to go about it?
Twenty-six people testifying at its meeting May 13 were happy to provide answers — Not their neighborhoods, the cost would be public outrage, and the city shouldn’t go about it at all.
“Tonight you have the opportunity to exercise democracy in action. Do the right thing and put a stop to this once and for all. None of us want to continue to experience the cost emotionally or financially that will occur if this continues,” said Brian Olson, president of Borough Residents Against Annexation. The group showed up in force Wednesday to urge the council not to pass an ordinance that would appropriate up to $150,000 to study the economic, social and logistical implications of annexation.
Of the 28 people who testified, only two — Soldotna resident Penny Vadla and daughter, Kaitlin Vadla, were even notionally open to the idea of annexation.
The rest expressed their vehement opposition in a variety of ways. From touch of local humor, with a resident of the River Hills Subdivision off Ciechanski Road suggesting spending the money proposed to study annexation on studying to remove the new roundabouts on Binkley Street.
To strident pronouncements:
“Don’t force nobody in. That’s what the communist people does, they force you to do stuff,” said Fred Sturman.
Liberty, freedom and America were buzzwords of the night.
“You plan to take my liberty away for economic growth,” said Martin Hall, who lives on Lonesome Street.
“If they want to land a plane on the lake out front at four in the morning, I don’t care. To me, that’s the sound of liberty,” said Mike Denison, of East Lake Avenue.
“This is still America and we should still have freedoms and the right to choose where we live,” said Daniel Lynch, of Soldotna.
“I didn’t vote for you. You don’t represent me. You have interest for people who live in the city, but not me. There’s something fundamentally un-American about the fact that you can have annexation without representation,” said Faith Hall, who lives in the Echo Lake area.
Several speakers were concerned that land use rules would change if they were part of the city.
“I want to have my six cats, I want to have my two dogs. Nobody’s going to tell me that I can’t do that. That’s why I bought that property,” said Karri Klopp Davidson, in the Jim Dahler Road area.
Business owners spoke, too. Travis Swanson, owner of Ron’s Honda Center on the Kenai Spur Highway past Knight Drive, said he considers the idea nothing more than a power grab.
“I have no desire to be part of the city of Soldotna. I don’t see any benefits that you’re going to offer me as a business owner,” he said.
Patricia Patterson, owner of Lucky Raven Tobacco just up the street, said she operates on a low profit margin to keep product costs down, and the additional 3 percent Soldotna sales tax she’d have to charge if her business were in city limits would be a detriment.
“I’m afraid that I’m one of those businesses that are targeted to make up for your lack of sales tax. Because I don’t feel I’m being looked at as a homeowner or a person, I’m looked at as money,” she said.
Several speakers threatened to take their contributions to Soldotna’s sales tax revenues and shop in Kenai, and all wanted assurance that they would get a say in whether or not their property was annexed.
Soldotna Mayor Nels Anderson gave his word that they would, though had to add the caveat that a sitting council can’t speak for council members to come.
“If any area is proposed for annexation, people within the area to be annexed would have right to vote against or for, that’s the idea,” he said.
Administration, too, vowed to maintain transparency and public involvement throughout the process.
“We support the idea of the public being involved in choosing those areas. We think that should happen in a public forum where everyone’s invited and knowing that’s occurring, rather than happening in some of our offices behind the scenes,” said Stephanie Queen, director of economic development and planning for the city.
Queen gave a presentation explaining certain instances and areas in which the city would consider annexation — one being along Funny River Road where 15 property owners are already served by city water and sewer and signed an agreement that the city might annex their area in the future. Another is a stretch of mostly vacant land on the south side of Kalifornsky Beach Road near the Sterling Highway intersection. City Manager Mark Dixson pointed out that the city currently has nearly no expansion capacity.
“We’ve had several businesses in the community who want to expand but don’t have any land in the city, and they want to be in the city,” he said.
The third is if property owners themselves express an interest in being part of the city, as a neighborhood near the college already has over concern that their community well water exceeds DEC arsenic levels.
In any case, the approach would be narrow and targeted, Queen said.
“The administration’s intention is to recommend really strategic and specific conversations in areas where we have already existing utility service to businesses and property owners, or adjacency or a special request,” she said.
Dixson said that any potential land selection would need to make sense, both for the city and the land owner.
“We’re going to look at the benefit to city and the benefit to the area, as well as the detriment to the city and the detriment to the area, not only on an economic standpoint, but just on a quality of life standpoint,” he said.
Established residential areas likely wouldn’t make sense, Dixson said. It would be costly to extend city services — water and sewer, police and animal control, for instance — to new areas, and given Soldotna’s low property tax rate of 0.5 mil, it wouldn’t generate much revenue in return. The last thing he wants to do is make annexation a cost that has to be borne by current city residents, he said.
“My concern is I owe a duty to the residents of the city of Soldotna not to raise the mill rate. It’s the lowest in the borough at 0.5, and I intend to keep it that way,” Dixson said.
Council member Pete Sprague amended the ordinance to appropriate $50,000 for an economic analysis of potential areas to annex first, rather than the initially proposed $150,000 to also do a public involvement component at the same time. That part can wait for the study to identify if and where any land might be appropriate to consider annexing.
Sprague told the audience that of all the areas the speakers that night had represented — Echo Lake, Ridgeway, River Hills, Skyline or Jim Dahler — none, to him, would make sense to annex, though the vacant land on the south side of K-Beach, the nonresidential areas up by Skyview Middle School and ARC Lake, and areas where the city already provides water and sewer service, might.
Council member Keith Baxter said he didn’t have enough information yet to dismiss the possibility of annexation altogether.
“I just don’t feel equipped without the study to make that final decision for what’s best for the area,” he said.
Sprague’s amended ordinance passed five to one, with student representative Jackson Blackwell’s advisory vote against it, and council member Meggean Bos voting no, although not rejecting the idea altogether.
“I just don’t feel like we need to spend tax money studying those because we already have some areas, it sounds like, that have contacted us about it. I feel like from there we can make suggestions and talk to people who do have a public interest in those specific areas,” Bos said.
Over the grumbles of the crowd, Mayor Anderson attempted to end the discussion on a positive note.
“No one is going to force anything upon you. And if you don’t believe it, then I can’t change that,” he said.
Queen said the economic study could be done in six to nine months.