Assembly undecided on west side inclusion in Nikiski planning group
The Kenai Peninsula Borough is considering a change to the boundaries of a Nikiski-based planning group after pushback from the remote community of Tyonek. But the assembly spent more than an hour debating the issue Tuesday night after hearing Tyonek’s side for the first time — and ultimately decided to postpone the vote to its next meeting.
The idea for a Nikiski Advisory Planning Commission first came uplast summer and was approved by the assembly in September to give Nikiski residents more of a voice in land planning decisions. As it stands, it covers more than 3.5 million acres, most of which are on the west side of Cook Inlet. The boundaries also include the Native village of Tyonek on the west side — which garnered little pushback from Tyonek representatives at the time, but has since become a point of contention for members of the Native community who say they don’t consider themselves culturally connected to Nikiski.
The assembly has since considered a motion to reduce the size of the APC to just the east side, which ended in a tie at the last borough assembly meeting and was reconsidered this week.
Before the meeting, the assembly received letters from almost 50 Tyonek residents in support of the smaller boundaries, as well as letters from the Native corporations from Salamatof and the Cook Inlet Region.
Tyonek Native Corporation CEO Stephen Peskosky testified about the strong resistance from the corporation's shareholders and Tyonek residents.
“APC in their precedent are principled on being local community common interest,” he said. “Three million acres on the other side of a body of water is not exactly community interest.”
The Native corporation’s Chief Administrative Officer Connie Downing, who grew up in the village of Tyonek, pushed back against claims from Nikiski residents that the west side is a part of the Nikiski community. She talked about how differences in culture and resources make the communities distinct.
In 2016, Nikiski attempted to incorporate as a city. That effort was rejected, partially because the plan included Tyonek, which is a sovereign native village.
“The west side is not and never will be a part of the community of Nikiski,” Downing said.
Several advocates for the larger APC boundaries also turned out. Some, like former assembly member Karen McGahan, who currently sits on the Nikiski APC, suggested compromises.
“If this is really about Tyonek, cut Tyonek out of the map. That’s fine,” she said. “The other solution would be — designate a seat on the advisory planning commission for Tyonek.”
None of the seven seats on the commission are currently held by Tyonek residents.
Eventually, the assembly seemed to come to terms with removing Tyonek from the map. At one point in the meeting, the assembly considered another map, proposed by Assembly Member Brent Hibbert, which would’ve kept all Native-owned lands on the west side out of the APC — but they ultimately voted that map down, 5-4.
Still, the question remains: What about the other millions of acres outside of Tyonek on the west side?
The assembly eventually decided to postpone the issue to work on finding a compromise. They will reconsider the subject at their next meeting on March 14.