By Jenny Neyman
It was not their ideal solution, but members of the Kenai City Council did pass a solution at its Sept. 16 meeting to address the thorny problem of providing better access to the south beach of the mouth of the Kenai River during the July dip-net fishery.
“We have to think outside the box a little bit. This is a little different than normal but I believe it can work, I believe it’s the right solution with the options that were given us and I don’t think we need to delay any further,” said Council Member Tim Navarre, who voted in favor of the city purchasing seven lots off Drag Net Court for the purpose of constructing a beach access road.
The city only needs four of the lots for the road project, but negotiations with ARK Properties LLC resulted in only one deal — all seven or none. The lots include one with a mansion and various outbuildings with a borough assessed value listed at over $1.4 million.
Not liking that option, the city investigated skirting those lots to put in a road, but that placed the path through sensitive wetlands, which was another nonstarter.
So it was back to the purchase option. The city obtained a $1.9 million grant from the state for improved access and upgrade work for the dip-net fishery. The road project is covered under that pot of money, including the $1.6 million purchase price for the seven lots.
But there are a few strings attached. The city intends to sell the lots it doesn’t need for the access road. The state doesn’t want the city using grant money to buy the land then turn around and sell it at a profit, since the purchase price of the lots is below the assessed value.
As City Manager Rick Koch explained, if there is any profit from the sale of the extra lots, the city will be required to return it to the state, where it will go back into the grant and be available for the city to use for other dip-net access and improvement work.
“It’s the same grant money that’s been replenished. And we are able to use it for the same purpose that the grant was extended to the city in the first place.” Koch said.
The council considered a substitute resolution approving the purchase of the land. The measure included some legal massaging so the deal complies with the city charter, which also doesn’t want the city getting into speculative real estate.
Council Member Bob Molloy said he would support the resolution, now that the state and city are on the same page.
“The benefit for me of this is it does move the proposed road to an area after re-plat, which doesn’t bisect the wetlands in the way that our original proposal would,” Molloy said.
Council Member Ryan Marquis was opposed. He was uneasy about improving dip-net access to begin with, concerned it will only encourage further growth — and associated impact — in the already ballooning fishery. And he was particularly uneasy about the land purchase.
“The plan is to sell those properties that we don’t need, but I don’t know the real estate market enough to feel confident that we’ll just be able to turn around and sell it right away,” Marquis said. “And I’m concerned with the city owning very expensive houses.”
Council Member Terry Bookey also was opposed to the purchase. If a deal couldn’t be made for just the four lots needed, he’d rather the city make the most of the setup it already has.
“I’ve heard the argument be, ‘Well, if we don’t do this then we have to go through wetland,’ and I offer the third alternative is that we don’t. We continue to do what appeared to work somewhat, if not significantly better this year than in years past, with the modification of the fee shack and things of that nature,” Bookey said.
Jason Yeoman, a property owner in the area, said that he and his neighbors still have issues with trespassing, both on foot and four-wheelers, dip-netters tearing up the beach, getting stuck in the sand, using inappropriate areas for restrooms, and causing other problems.
“It hasn’t been working. That’s why we’re here. Improvements, yes. Working, no,” Yeoman said.
That cinched it for Vice Mayor Brian Gabriel.
“The dip-net fishery, love it or hate it, I don’t believe it’s going away,” he said. “I think some of the property owners down there should not be subjected to some of the issues they’ve had. And our job up here is to provide order to the city of Kenai, and this accomplishes that.”
The measure passed with Bookey and Marquis opposed and all others in favor.