2015: Weirdest year ever?

As people sit back today and reflect on the past year, 2015 turns out to have been one strange trip. Even the legalization of marijuana in February couldn’t explain some happenings. At times it seemed as if Kachemak Bay had slipped into an alternate universe. Among the events:

• For the second year in a row, hardly any snow fell on Homer, causing skiers to resort to roller skiing on the Spit Trail;

• On some summer days the temperature got so hot, Homer kids resorted to the common lower-48 practice of running in swimming suits through sprinklers;

• Green grass and 45-degree temperatures made February look more like April;

• Saturated soil and heavy rains in April caused about a 50-yard section of Kachemak Drive near the Homer Spit Road to collapse;

• Ocean temperatures warmed, causing an increase in harmful algae and at one point closing an oyster farm because of paralytic shellfish poisoning;

• Hundreds of sea otters and common murres washed up dead or dying on bay beaches, and

• Less tragically, orcas and humpback whales entertained us well into November as dozens of whales played in the bay, sometimes right off the end of the Spit.

Homer also saw changes in its economy, politics and infrastructure.

How Homer and the state will cope with declining revenues dominated news throughout the year. Dropping oil prices and state revenues hit Homer as the state cut revenue sharing and funding for community jails, forcing the city to get creative in financing basic services. At town meetings, citizens floated ideas and considered how to keep city government running — or cut services.

A bare-bones budget with deep cuts was averted when in a special December election votes passed a proposition diverting .75-percent of sales taxes to the general fund from the Homer Accelerated Roads and Trails fund. The budget still had some cuts, like not hiring a new jail officer or dispatcher. One minor hit to the budget: paying a $42,500 settlement to condominium owner Ken Castner after the city tried to fight and lost a Superior Court decision Castner won two years ago challenging the way the city assessed condominiums in the city’s natural gas special assessment district. 

The lower Kenai Peninsula got involved in state discussions on addressing a looming fiscal gap of about $3 billion. In September, Department of Revenue Commissioner Randy Hoffbeck visited Homer and Ninilchik for town meetings to explain the gap and how the state might address it. Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, suggested one idea, bringing back a state income tax, when he filed such a bill in the 2015 Alaska Legislature.

Gov. Bill Walker adopted a similar idea when he introduced his fiscal plan. Walker also suggested some new taxes on alcohol and fuel as well as using Permanent Fund revenues to pay for state government.

Despite a challenging economy, some entrepreneurs took a leap of faith and opened new stores. Janie Buncak started Classic Cook, a specialty cooking supply store, and Michael McGuire and Caressa Starshine opened a remodeled K-Bay Caffé in the old Orca Plumbing Building. Both are on Pioneer Avenue. Kelly Cooper also opened a drive-through coffee shop, Coop’s Coffee on East End Road. 

After a four-month search for a new city manager, in early March the city offered the job to Jeffery Trinker of Rosenberg, Texas. When Trinker turned down the job, the city dipped into its own talent pool and hired city economic development director Katie Koester to be the new city manager. Interim city manager Marvin Yoder filled in until Koester took the job in April.

The city council got two new members when veteran council member Francie Roberts chose not to run for re-election and one-term incumbent Beauregard Burgess lost in a runoff. The election drew a record number of seven candidates for two 3-year seats. Donna Aderhold won election on the first ballot in October, and newcomer Heath Smith beat Burgess in the runoff in November.

Burgess left his mark on the city when in April he pushed through creation of the Cannabis Advisory Commission. With the state moving ahead on licensing the production and sale of marijuana, Burgess urged the city to be proactive and craft its own cannabis policies. That led to the odd sight of Homer Police Chief Mark Robl sitting at the same table with budding pot entrepreneurs. With a commission in place, Burgess noted that the city could reap half the $5,000 licensing fees of cannabis companies.

Two veteran politicians in the Kenai Peninsula Borough stepped down this year. District 9 Assembly member Mako Haggerty left the assembly after he could not run again because of term limits. Political newcomer Willie Dunn replaced him when he won election in October. District 9 School Board member Sunni Hilts of Seldovia retired in December after a 13-year career. The board will appoint a replacement.

Even though the Alaska Legislature cut capital spending to cities, projects still in the loop saw fruition this year. Among them:

• A new $2 million Homer Harbor Office built on the northeast side of the harbor that opened in May;

• A new load-and-launch ramp at the harbor finished in December; and 

• A new Kachemak Emergency Services fire station on the west side on Diamond Ridge Road that formally opened in early January.

At year’s end, survey work started on Waddell Way, a road that will link Heath Street and Lake Street so motorists don’t have to drive the Sterling Highway to get between the two busy downtown streets.

In October, drivers also had to learn a new pattern on Pioneer Avenue: stopping at Main Street for a four-way stop. In the first few weeks, despite blinking red stop lights, many drivers heading east and west blew through intersection on Pioneer Avenue by the Homer Theatre.

Warm weather and sunny skies lured visitors from Alaska and elsewhere to Kachemak Bay. Along with the usual tourists and cruise ship passengers, Homer saw some notable visitors: 

• King Harald V of Norway took a boat tour on May 26 of Kachemak Bay to learn about climate change from local scientists. IEnthusiastic Norwegian Americans greeted him, including Margit Andersson, 102, who shook his hand. The distinguished elder, who was still skiing at 100, later died in September.

• Irish Ambassador to the United States Anne Anderson visited Homer June 24 and got the key to the city and a warm welcome from Mayor Beth Wythe. 

• Gov. Bill Walker made his first formal trip as governor to Homer, speaking at the Oct. 9 meeting of the Recreation and Parks Commission and at the Homer Senior Center’s Senior Summit. Walker visited seniors, including Wendell Stout, 100.

In response to concerns from Old Town residents and businesses about misuse of bay beaches, the Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission held workshops and hearings and released its recommendations in August for new beach policies. Among them were restricting or banning vehicle use on Bishop’s Beach and the Spit. Council member Catriona Reynolds introduced an ordinance adopting some of the recommendations, but got the council to pull it after some citizen protest. She’ll take up the issue again in 2016.

Coast Guard families endured long deployments as crews from the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Roanoke Island and Hickory went on long voyages. The Roanoke crew sailed the veteran ship 7,000 miles back east in June for decommissioning. Roanoke had called Homer its homeport for its entire 23 years of service. 

While the ship left, the crew stayed, returning home on another Island Class cutter, Sapelo, from San Juan, Puerto Rico. The aging Island class ship will be eventually replaced with a Sentinel class fast-response cutter, but whether or not Homer will be its homeport remains to be seen.

While most people continued to feel safe in Homer, crimes from the petty to the violent affected town. Some major cases reached resolution this year.

A years-long saga ended in early March when Anthony Resetarits, 22, and his brother, Joseph, 20, pleaded guilty to crimes related to the sexual assault of a boy at a teen drinking party in September 2012.

The men originally had been charged with sexual assault, but Anthony pleaded guilty to first-degree hindering prosecution, both felonies, and contributing to the delinquency of a minor — his younger brother. Joseph pleaded guilty to first-degree harassment. They got suspended impositions of sentences. Anthony had to serve 70 days in jail and do 120 hours of community work service and Joseph had to perform 80 hours of community work service.

In May, a Homer jury convicted Demarqus Green, 23, of second-degree murder in the July 2012 death of Demian Sagerser. At year’s end, Judge Anna Moran sentenced Green to 40 years in prison with 15 years suspended (see story, page 1).

One of the more talked-about incidents was the vandalism of a community art project, the annual Burning Basket facilitated by artist Mavis Muller. 

A vandal tried to torch the basket early Saturday before its ritual burning, and then early on Sunday morning succeeded in ripping it to shreds when he attached a tow rope to it and sped away in his truck. Undeterred, Muller and her team rebuilt the art and held the burning as scheduled.

Elias Graham, 18, a Homer High School senior, later pleaded guilty to fifth-degree criminal mischief, and got a suspended imposition of sentence — meaning the charge goes away if he fulfills the conditions of his sentence. He has to perform 80 hours of community work service and pay restitution to Muller.

At year’s end, Homer still was snowless in town, although the higher elevations did get almost 2 feet of snow.

The storm that brought that snow is part of a weather system out in the Gulf of Alaska with hurricane-force winds that at year’s end once again postponed a sailing of the M/V Tustumena from Homer to Kodiak. 

As Homer and Alaska brace for continued change in 2016, perhaps the city’s motto should not be “The city that works” but the old Samurai saying, “Expect nothing. Prepare for anything.”

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.

Top stories of 2015

January: Acting City Manager Marvin Yoder is sworn in as a temporary replacement while the city searches for a new leader.

February: The Kachemak Emergency Services Diamond Ridge Fire Station formally opens.

March: Katie Koester is hired as Homer city manager.

March: Anthony and Joseph Resetarits plead guilty to lesser crimes related to the September 2012 sexual assault of a teenage boy at a drinking party, but they are not convicted of the sexual assault.

April: A section of Kachemak Drive collapses and slides into Mud Bay.

May: A $2 million Homer Harbor Office opens.

May: A Homer jury convicts Demarqus Green of second-degree murder in the July 2012 shooting death of Demian Sagerser at his Anchor Point home.

May: King Harald V of Norway visits Homer.

June: The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Roanoke Island was decommissioned after 23 years of service in Homer and replaced by Sapelo, another Island class cutter.

July: A warm and sunny summer wows visitors and locals, but it also leads to warmer ocean temperatures and an increase in harmful algae.

August: Sea otters and common murres begin showing up dead and dying by the hundreds on Kachemak Bay beaches.

September: After the Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission makes new recommendations on beach policy, an ordinance restricting beach use is introduced and then withdrawn by the city council.

October: Donna Aderhold wins election to the Homer City Council and Willie Dunn wins election to the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly.

October: A four-way stop comes to Pioneer Avenue and Main Street, confusing inattentive drivers who, for a few weeks, habitually blow through the new stop signals.

November: In a run-off election, Heath Smith defeats incumbent Beau Burgess and wins a second seat on the council.

December: Voters approve Proposition 1, diverting .75-percent of sales taxes to the general fund from the Homer Accelerated Roads and Trails fund. 

December: 13-year Kenai Peninsula Borough Board of Education member Sunny Hilts retires.

As of Oct. 6, the intersection of Pioneer Avenue and Main Street became a four-way full stop intersection.-Photo by Annie Rosenthal, Homer News

As of Oct. 6, the intersection of Pioneer Avenue and Main Street became a four-way full stop intersection.-Photo by Annie Rosenthal, Homer News