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After lengthy approval process, work to begin on Japanese garden and trails

Kenai Peninsula Peace Crane Garden Trails

Construction begins Monday on a Soldotna park three years in the making.

Sarah Pyhala, who’s spearheading the Kenai Peninsula Peace Crane Garden Trails, plans to build a Japanese-themed garden and 2,700 feet of trails near Marydale and Riverwatch in Soldotna. She has longer-term plans in mind for the park, too, including a fish pond and tea house.

That’s been a sticking point for neighbors, who say the project has changed a lot since it was first proposed.

“My wife and I are not necessarily opposed to a park or a trail, but it’s really hard to support the concept if we don’t understand what the long-term vision is for the property,” said Jack Blackwell at a recent Soldotna City Council meeting. Blackwell shares a property line with the park-to-be.

Neighbors raised similar concerns at a meeting last month, where tensions ran high between Mooring Subdivision neighbors and the Pyhalas.

They said they felt there had been a lack of outreach from the park’s creators. Some also raised concerns about an uptick of traffic or homelessness in the area. 

Pyhlala said they’ve made changes based on feedback they’ve heard from constituents. They got approval for users to park at the Soldotna Prep School building, for example, which is little over a half-mile away.

“We have done what we can to answer their questions," she said. "We are actively working with them to produce a liaison. There are several people they have in mind for the position. And we, as a board, are working on what we would like to see that position entail.”

Pyhala said that will make it easier to get information between the board and the neighborhood. She said they didn’t think to talk through the park with the entire neighborhood in its early stages.

“And we had talked to a sampling of people before the borough approved the land," she said. "And everybody was in favor so we didn’t move forward with a mass thing. But we had also already been through six sites. And everytime we talked about a site it fell through within a week.”

She said she’ll reach out to the neighbors again before pursuing other phases of the project. 

Pyhala was waiting on a stamp of approval from the Soldotna City Council before applying for a grant from the Department of Natural Resource’s Recreational Trails Program.

It was more of a formality — the park is on Kenai Peninsula Borough land and the borough approved the land lease last year. But Pyhala said they did have to show funders they had support from the community.

Even though some neighbors were still unsatisfied with the park, the council gave its unanimous support to the idea.

Council member Pamela Parker said she wasn’t initially thrilled about the project. But her thought process shifted.

“Yes, I still understand why the community members that live right in that neighborhood are frustrated,” she said. “They were not directly involved in this process the entire time. However, I do believe that the organization has a really solid plan. I think they know what they want to do with this land. And I think that it's going to be a fantastic trail system when it’s done.”

Two days after she got the go-ahead from the city council, Pyhala submitted an application for the grant.

Starting next week, crews will come in to start removing dead standing trees and brush from the area. A group of kids is coming in to plant trees, Pyhala said, a followup on a Caring 4 the Kenai project.

The garden is also getting a sculpture of a sandhill crane, a collaboration between local students and Anchorage sculptor Christina Demetro. Pyhala said they’ll install the sculpture this fall.

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