Commission postpones Soldotna annexation vote over residents' right to vote
The city of Soldotna — and areas that might become part of Soldotna — will have to wait a little longer to see if the state of Alaska Local Boundary Commission will approve the city’s petition to annex 2.63 square miles of surrounding territory.
The commission held meetings last week over Zoom conferencing, hearing the city’s presentation and public testimony for over four hours Tuesday, then debating the issue for just about another four hours Wednesday.
After all that, the commission postponed its decision until legal issues could be further researched.
LBC staff found that Soldotna’s petition met the bar for annexation — that it would be in the best interest of the state in shifting services to the city, the proposed areas fit the character of current city boundaries and that the city would be able to offer services to the new areas.
City Manager Stephanie Queen said they’re looking to incorporate a modest amount of territory. If approved, she said Soldotna would grow to about 10 square miles and still only be about a third the size of an average Alaska city.
Queen said the areas chosen have already experienced growth or are expected to, which impacts the city.
“We’re seeking to address our critical concern of being able to respond to that grown and continue providing high-quality services that the community has come to expect from us as our city grows and changes,” Queen said. “…. And as areas outside and adjacent to the city continue grow so, too, does the demand on city of Soldotna resources. Our infrastructure experiences greater use and requires more frequent maintenance. Our facilities must be upsized, for example, whether it’s parks or the library, we build those at a larger scale to accommodate not just city residents but the bigger regional population.”
Queen said the areas already receive direct city services — like water and sewer — or enjoy benefits from being just on the fringe of city boundaries.
As with every previous opportunity for public testimony, though, the majority of speakers were against annexation. Also as has been the case with previous testimony, many of the speakers don’t live in or have property in the proposed area.
Residents of proposed annexation areas say they don’t want to be covered by city statutes, rather than the more lax codes of the borough. Business owners say they don’t want to have to charge the city’s additional 3 percent sales tax. Most have pointed out that they already have services — road maintenance by the borough or state, public safety from Alaska State Troopers, their own wells and septic — and don’t want the additional things the city could offer.
Don Boston owns Boston’s Subaru on the Kenai Spur Highway just north of current city limits.
“There’s no benefit to us,” Boston said. “There’s nothing there that they have to give us that we want or need. Involuntary annexation is supposed to benefit, not punish, the residents of unincorporated areas.”
The most common annexation criticism in public testimony has been the city choosing the legislative review method, rather than putting the matter to a public vote. In legislative review, the LBC says yay or nay to the petition, then the Legislature has a chance to vote to oppose the measure or not act and allow it to pass. Queen said the city made every effort to give the public opportunity to weigh in on the matter and addressed concerns as well as they’ve been able but didn’t think a vote would be the best approach.
“There’s only 177 residents in the territory,” Queen said. “The vast majority of this land is commercial, so those folks wouldn’t get to vote anyway. Even in local option, it would only be the residents of the area and, so, we kind of went above and beyond in the process — to some critics that took way to long — to try and figure out ways to engage with everybody.”
Speaker after speaker, though, have said the people being affected should get to decide. Pam Hansen lives in Area 1, along Funny River between the Soldotna airport and the K-Beach intersection.
“I just feel really strongly opposed to this annexation where we don’t even get a voice, it just happens,” Hansen said.
Commissioners spent hours picking apart the relative merits of the services the city proposes to provide and the needs of the city in having control over these areas, but, ultimately, the question of a public vote was the most substantial issues discussed.
Commissioner John Harrington said he understands why the city didn’t put the matter to a vote. Annexation is often unpopular but that doesn’t make it unnecessary in certain cases, he said, which is why the legislative review method is in the state constitution.
“And this is a classic case of why that is in there,” Harrington said. “This is an annexation that, by any rational standards, needs to happen. Soldotna needs to have control of their area. They need to expand, they need to get control of the whole process there and they can’t by a vote of the people.”
Commissioner Lance Roberts sided with the property owners of the proposed annexation areas.
“We talked about local self-government and how they would get the ability to vote. Well, this is one of those abilities to vote that somebody in an annexed territory should have,” Roberts said.
He motioned to change the approval method from legislative review to a public vote. Harrington argued that doing so would effectively kill the petition. Rather than force the city go through with that process, he proposed his own amendment to give the city the option to withdraw their petition if Roberts’ amendment passes.
But amendments to amendment get a little tricky. And no one was quite sure who all should be voting — just residents in the proposed annexation areas or city residents, as well? Chair Larry Wood ultimately postposed a commission vote to give legal minds a chance to work through these issues.
The commission has not yet announced when it will reconvene.