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Assembly approves Nikiski planning commission, the largest in the borough

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Sabine Poux
/
KDLL
Petitioner Camille Broussard shows the two potential Nikiski advisory planning commission maps at the borough assembly meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 20.

The community of Nikiski can now form its own advisory planning commission — which will be the largest in the Kenai Peninsula Borough by more than three million acres.

That size was a sticking point last night for some members of the borough assembly, who wondered whether communities on the west side of Cook Inlet would be adequately represented by the group making decisions about land use in their area.

Advisory planning commissions (APCs) are groups of residents appointed to make recommendations to the borough about planning and public land use. Several unincorporated communities in the Kenai Peninsula Borough already have them. And this summer, Nikiski residents gathered to work on a petition to create one in their community.

On Tuesday, the borough assembly debated two potential maps for the APC — a large map including the west-side communities of Tyonek and Beluga, supported by the petitioners in Nikiski, and a smaller map without those communities, proposed by the borough’s planning commission.

Ultimately, the assembly greenlit the larger map, including 3.5 million acres on either side of Cook Inlet. Assembly members voted down an amendment 7-2 that would’ve codified the smaller map.

Camille Broussard, of Nikiski, authored the petition for the APC and said the bigger area is consistent with the boundaries of Nikiski’s fire service area, senior service area and recreation area. She said it also aligns with the assembly district and the school board.

“Our boundary elements unite us as a community. These boundaries are an established standard of representation,” she testified at the assembly meeting.

Now that her map has passed, Broussard said she’s excited for Nikiski residents to have a voice in decisions about land in the community.

But the larger map did draw concerns from some assembly members, who wondered whether those west-side communities would want to be included in the plan.

None of the nearly 50 petition signatures were from residents of the west side, based on the addresses listed on the petition. Nobody from those communities spoke at the assembly meeting, nor at previous meetings regarding the petition.

Broussard said at least one of the signatories of the petition is the owner of a business on the west side, and that the person’s family lives on that side of the inlet seasonally.

Assembly Member Cindy Ecklund voted for the smaller map, along with Assembly President Brent Johnson, because of her concerns about west-side representation.

“I would be in favor of including the west side if there has been anybody from the west that spoke in favor of this or that I was assured had signed the position,” Ecklund said. “But I am totally in favor of Nikiski having an advisory planning commission.”

The Native Village of Tyonek’s president Johann Bartels was not reachable by the time this story aired, nor was a representative from the Tyonek Native Corporation.

The inclusion of west-side communities has been a sticking point in previous efforts to organize in Nikiski.

In 2016, hundreds of Nikiski residents petitioned the state to incorporate Nikiski as its own city, a proposal which included a map very similar to the footprint just approved for the APC. The proposal was rooted in the community’s dissatisfaction with services provided by the borough and their claim that the borough collects more money from the community than it spends on maintenance. Stacey Oliva, one of the primary organizers of Citizens for Nikiski, has been a vocal advocate for the APC’s larger boundaries, as well.

If it panned out, Nikiski would have remained a part of the borough, and would have been the largest city in the state by a long shot.

The borough denied the incorporation, in part because the plan included Tyonek — which, as a sovereign native village, cannot be incorporated into a city. The borough’s response, signed by then-mayor Mike Navarre, also concludes that the plan did not meet “community connectivity standards.”

At that time, like today, none of the signatures from across 103 pages of petitioners for city status were from the west side, according to the borough report.

At the assembly meeting this week, Assembly Member Jesse Bjorkman said the large APC could help Nikiski achieve incorporation down the road.

“I don’t see an inherent problem with the APC incorporating this area, as we already have three models of this area being incorporated contiguously now. To make it four, I don’t think, is any problem,” he said. “If anything, it would make sense that an additional layer would give more cause and more evidence about why this area should be an incorporated city possibly, or maybe even a borough.”

Borough Planning Director Robert Ruffner said he anticipates some difficulties with the unprecedented size of the new APC.

“That’ll probably create some unique challenges to make sure that everybody is informed and aware of what’s going on. So we will try to do a bit better, especially at the beginning, about doing some advertising, and letting people know it’s available,” Ruffner said.

But he said he’s thrilled about the newly established commission, and having another voice at the table to help guide the borough’s decisions.

Ruffner said that the next steps will be soliciting interest from Nikiski residents in serving on the commission, seeking applications and receiving specific appointments from the mayor.

Riley Board is a Report For America reporter covering rural communities on the central Kenai Peninsula for KDLL.
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  • Advisory planning commissions are groups of appointed residents who make recommendations to the borough about planning and public land use. Petitioners in Nikiski support a map for that commission that includes the communities of Tyonek and Beluga on the other side of Cook Inlet. The Borough Planning Commission is advocating for a different map that does not include the west side.