540 say no to gas proposal

Does Homer’s silent majority want natural gas or not?

That was the topic at the Homer City Council’s regular meeting on Monday when members of the public and the city council discussed creating the Natural Gas Homer Special Assessment District. As proposed by the city, boundaries of the SAD mirror the city limits and include 3,855 properties. Assessments estimated to be $3,283 per property would pay for a $12.7-million distribution system to deliver natural gas from a trunk line to be constructed by Enstar Natural Gas Company from Anchor Point to the cities of Homer and Kachemak.

“The silent majority in Homer, although they may not have openly approved of this, are in support of this kind of ordinance and I think we should follow their lead,” said council member Beau Burgess, referring to Ordinance 13-02.

If passed by the council, the ordinance authorizes creation of the district, an improvement plan for the district and gives City Manager Walt Wrede the go-ahead to proceed with the project.

Backing up Burgess’ comments were the results of an objection period that ended Friday. The owners of 3,855 properties within the proposed district were notified by certified mail in November that they had until Jan. 25 to submit to the city clerk objections to the district. 

Objections from half or 1,928 of the properties were required to stop the project. Non-responses were considered support for the project. A total 540 objections were received.

Homer resident Larry Slone, who objects to the proposed district, had a different interpretation of the non-responses.

“I know there weren’t enough to vote against it, but I don’t think it reflects the will of the people,” said Slone, who took advantage of Monday’s public hearing to make known the reasons behind his objections.

“I think it was quite evident it was rushed through primarily because the funding was available and Enstar, I think, was applying pressure also,” said Slone. He also noted “unfair cost distribution, Enstar’s role in the whole process, affordability to low-income people, unsuitable lots, potential lawsuits from people who think they have unfair assessments because of discrepancies. … The point I want to make is I think there are other possibilities that can be explored yet. Even if it delays the project, it’s still appropriate.”

Slone wasn’t the only member of the public to comment.

“It’s time to step back and really think it out. Not one drop of energy comes from a renewable source, so it doesn’t make sense to keep kicking this can down the road and try to solve some of the problems we need to be solving,” said Richard Gustafson.

Joyclyn Graham took issue with the objection procedure.

“If you carry that logic a step further to the general elections here in Homer, you’re essentially saying the 80 percent of people who didn’t get out to vote voted yes,” she said.

Ken Castner, one of the owners of a five-unit condominium office building, objected to the city’s proposal that condominium owners in the same building will be assessed individually rather than one assessment per building as will be done for apartment buildings.

“The city decided they’d do all for one and one for all. Big lot, little lot, it doesn’t matter. Everybody gets treated the same until you get to my name and then you say that’s a condominium and those guys pay more,” said Castner. “Please, really, why would you cross over the boundary line and do an inspection of ownership? What does that have to do with the (natural gas) line doing by?”

A long-time Homer resident, Castner said, “I’m a great person to have on your side. I’m a terrible person to have as an adversary. I don’t want to be an adversary and I don’t want to end up in court, but that’s the position I’m feeling myself in.”

Council member Bryan Zak said he has “problems” with the way condominium owners would be assessed. 

“I’d work to try to find some kind of clarification or legal opinion on that,” said Zak. 

All five council members presented voted for introduction of the ordinance: Burgess, James Dolma, David Lewis, Francie Roberts and Zak. Council member Barbara Howard was not present. A second public hearing and action by the council on the ordinance is scheduled for the council’s Feb. 11 meeting.

Originally the city had planned a resolution, rather than an ordinance, as the vehicle for proceeding with development of the SAD. That procedure became part of city code after the passage of Ordinance 12-15 in April.

“At the noticed date and time, the council shall hold a public hearing on the necessity of the improvement and proposed improvement plan. After the public hearing, the council shall act upon a resolution determining to proceed with the proposed improvement,” the ordinance read in part.

A handout on the natural gas project prepared by the city noted, “On January 14 and 28, 2013, (city) council will hold public hearings and then vote on a resolution to determine whether to proceed with the construction of a natural gas distribution system for the city of Homer.”

Katie Koester, the city’s community and economic development coordinator, said city attorney, Thomas Klinkner, suggested the change from a resolution to an ordinance.

“A few weeks ago he said, ‘You know, I really think we should do an ordinance instead of a resolution. It’s a tighter, better way to go about it,’” Koester told the Homer News. “So we have been talking this whole time about the 28th, the 28th, the final (public hearing) is the 28th, and then we introduced an ordinance instead of a resolution.”

As a result, the public has one more opportunity to publically state support or opposition to the Natural Gas Homer Special Assessment district at the city council’s Feb. 11 meeting. 

Prior to the evening meeting, the council held a two-topic special meeting to address City Manager Wrede’s annual performance evaluation and new employment contract and a special U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit modification application for the Ocean Drive Loop Seawall. The items were discussed in executive session. With regard to Wrede’s evaluation and contract, the reason cited for the executive session was that it included subjects “that tend to prejudice the reputation and character of any person provided the person may request a public discussion.” Regarding the Corps of Engineers permit, the reason cited was that it included information “the immediate knowledge of which would clearly have an adverse effect upon the finances of the public entity.”

In other action the city council:

• Postponed action on Ordinance 13-03, deferring of special assessments on low-income residents, until Feb. 11;

• Introduced Ordinance 13-03, authorizing the city to issue a Natural Gas Distribution Special Assessment Bond not to exceed $12.7 million to finance the design and construction of natural gas distribution improvements in the city, with a public hearing and second reading on Feb. 11;

• Did not approve Resolution 13-007, transferring funds between the city and the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities regarding intersection improvements and traffic control at Main Street and the Sterling Highway;

• Approved Resolution 13-008, requesting the Legislature to re-appropriate $2 million the city received for improvements of the Sterling Highway and Main Street intersection to a new port and harbor office and/or a new Skyline Drive Fire Station;

• Approved Resolution 13-009, exempting Kachemak Moose Habitat Inc. from city property tax.

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinsky@homernews.com.