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Amid squabble, borough considers changes to planning commission

kenai_gravel_pit.jpg
Shaylon Cochran/KDLL
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Appointments to the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s Planning Commission are usually straightforward. Lately, however, the process for filling seats on the 11-member commission has stalled over questions about representation and who gets to choose its members.

Monday night, the planning commission unanimously approved a proposal to streamline that process — in part, by bringing the regulations back to what they were in 2016. If passed by the borough assembly, the ordinance would add two representatives to the commission and clarify that cities can send just one name to borough administration for approval.

Robert Ruffner has served on the commission for a decade and is its vice chair. He said commissioners were eager to make the change.

“We all recognize that it was going to be a little difficult to try to balance the cities and unincorporated areas on a planning commission the way it was laid out," he said. "So we were all pretty excited to say, ‘Well, let’s just go back to the way it was before.’”

The borough’s planning commission has an important job — to oversee matters of land use and planning in the borough. Ruffner said the most hot-button matter commissioners deal with is approving gravel pits — a matter slated to come before the borough again this December.

Cities want more say in how those decisions are made. But that’s been challenging, since there are four city seats and five cities.The other seven commission seats are held by representatives from unincorporated areas.

It wasn’t always that way. The Kenai Peninsula Borough dropped two seats from the commission in 2016 to account for changes in population. That change went into effect last year and, informally, the cities have been rotating through which gets left off the commission.

This summer, Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce suggested merging Seldovia and Homer’s seats — which he said would be more efficient but which got a lot of pushback from cities.

The borough and cities also locked horns about how commissioners should get appointed to the commission. 

Right now, candidates apply directly to cities and those cities send their recommendations to the borough for approval. Soldotna forwarded one name to the borough for its vacant seat — Linda Farnsworth-Hutchings, a member of the Soldotna City Council who ran against Pierce for borough mayor twice.

Pierce refused to appoint Farnsworth-Hutchings and told Soldotna he should be able to pick from a list of multiple names, not just one. The city, in return, said the mayor couldn’t just refuse to appoint a recommended commissioner if he wasn’t happy with the choice.

The new ordinance takes on those concerns. For one, it says one name is enough. 

Lane Chesley, one of the assembly members who introduced the ordinance, said that will be important going forward since cities don’t usually get long lists of options. 

"As I have been on the planning commission in Homer and involved with Homer City Council, sometimes it’s hard to get names to put forward for planning commission," he said. "And sometimes you’re grateful to have a candidate step up. And to have two would be a luxury.”

The ordinance also returns the commission to its 13-seat structure, with each city again getting a seat. 

Ruffner said commissioners saw the value in each city having its own seat at the table, since each has its idiosyncrasies. And he said the commission got the thumbs up on the change from the borough’s legal department.

“The impetus for making this change back in 2016 was that we didn’t have the right balance between incorporated and unincorporated representation," Ruffner said. "The borough attorney now, looking at the population numbers that we have right now, says that it’s not that far out of whack that we couldn’t just go back to the way it was before.”

Additionally, the ordinance would specify that commission members must be residents of the cities they’re representing.

To someone who hasn’t been following the seating discussion since 2016, the changes might seem a bit in the weeds. But the sponsors of the ordinance say it will ensure the borough and cities don’t get snagged on issues of representation in the future.

In the meantime, those snags are still holding up the appointment process in Soldotna, where its commission seat remains empty. 

Pierce has still not approved Farnsworth-Hutchings for the seat. After Pierce asked the city for a longer list of names, Mayor Paul Whitney also threw his name in the ring. 

The borough assembly will consider the ordinance at its meeting next week.

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