Soldotna Council gets earful on annexation

Sep 9, 2019

Credit City of Soldotna

As the city of Soldotna nears the end of its annexation process, the council listened to public testimony Saturday at Soldotna High School on its proposal to add roughly 3.8 square miles to city limits.

Nearly 100 people attended the meeting and about three dozen testified. The most common comment was the sense of unfairness that people in the proposed areas do not get a chance to vote on the matter.

Brian Olson lives outside the proposed annexation areas but has been a vocal opponent from the start.

“It appalls me that in this day and age the Soldotna Council, who do not represent folks living outside the city limits, can annex land without the explicit consent of the residents and businesses,” Olson said. “Borough residents have zero representation on the city council but will have their property rights and lines forever changed.”

Annexation would extend services to the new areas or would change the provider of already existing services. Public safety, road maintenance and animal control would be handled by the city. New areas would have the choice of hooking up to city water and sewer — if and when current infrastructure is expanded. But several commenters said they’re happy with their current services and don’t want changes.

Ravin Swan moved her business, Gamas Designs, to K-Beach in 2015, specifically so she’d be outside city limits. 

“The city of Soldotna cannot provide me with any better roads. Definitely cannot provide me with any better police service,” Swan said.

Additional regulations that would come with annexation were a particular sore spot. The city has commercial and residential building codes beyond what is required in the unincorporated areas of the borough. The city also regulates things like commercial signage and landscaping. Businesses in annexed areas would be grandfathered as-is and would not have to make changes to meet city code — unless they undertake new construction, expansion or a change of use.

“Your building codes, your rules, your ordinances are difficult to navigate, they’re expensive and they make owning a small business in city limits very difficult,” Swan said.

Businesses would also have to charge the city’s 3 percent sales tax, in addition to the borough’s 3 percent. Michael Modrell, manager of Alaska Ammo on K-Beach, says his shop expects to lose customers.

“The lack of city tax has allowed new businesses like Alaska Ammo to come to the area,” Modrell said … We will not benefit from the city services in a way that will better our growth. As it stands right now, we have a good deal of business that we get through our doors solely because we don’t have city taxes.”

As for property taxes, residents of annexed areas could save money, as the city has a lower mil rate than the borough. But the borough offers more property tax exemptions, so it could be a wash for some folks. 

Some residents complained they’ll lose their rural feel if forced to become citified.

“I want to be able to teach my daughter to ride her ATV in our yard and down the trails,” said Tracy Lay. “I want us to be able to shoot our guns, safely, in our neighborhood. … We have plenty of open woods safely to hunt in around our neighborhoods, outside of the city.”

The discharge of firearms is not allowed in city limits. Riding recreational vehicles is allowed on private property. Commercial kennels and farm animals also are allowed in the city, but only in certain zones. Zoning for annexed areas would be determined later, if the city’s petition is submitted and approved.

Only one person spoke in favor of annexation. Mitch Michaud lives in the Ridgeway area. He said he’s had three break-ins in the past five years and would rather be covered by Soldotna Police, as they have a much lower officer-to-resident ratio than Alaska State Troopers. He also welcomes city road maintenance and the opportunity to vote in city elections. He drives on city streets, uses city parks, the library and other facilities, and feels he should contribute.

“If you’re getting something and you’re getting something for nothing, somebody else is paying,” Michaud said. “I’m tired of the borough and the state and the feds paying for things that I feel I have the responsibility to pay for.”

The city council will consider a resolution to submit an annexation petition to the state’s Local Boundary Commission at its Sept. 26 meeting. If submitted, the commission’s review and public testimony process will likely take a year, at which point it could approve, deny or modify the petition. If approved, the petition would go to the Legislature, which could deny it — putting the matter to bed — or take no action, which would allow it to pass.

If all that happens, the soonest annexation would become official would be March 2021, with services, taxes, zoning and other changes taking effect over the course of a year or more.

The city provides information on annexation on its website.