Borough assembly lifts deed restrictions on HERC property

Following the advice of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Planning Commission, on Nov. 25 the KPB Assembly gave its unanimous approval to remove restrictions the borough placed on the deed for what is known as the HERC, Homer Education and Recreation Complex. Located at the corner of Pioneer Avenue and the Sterling Highway, the 4.30-acre tract and buildings with a current total assessment of $4.8 million was sold to the city in 1998 for the price of $1 with the restrictions “that the site shall be owned in perpetuity by the city of Homer or its successor and be managed for the use and benefit of the general public.”

The 1998 action came at the request of city officials.

“This facility would provide potential for much needed space for our library, future Parks and Recreation Department, recreation center or meeting rooms, to mention a few of the items the city of Homer is continually asked by our residents to help 

provide at our local level,” then Mayor Jack Cushing wrote at the time.

In September 2013, with the Homer City Council considering demolition of buildings on the HERC site to make way for construction of a new public safety building, the council requested by way of Resolution 13-096, the borough remove the deed restrictions in case selling the property was a better option with the proceeds directed toward constructing the public safety building.

“Since the resolution was adopted, the situation has changed significantly,” Homer City Manager Walt Wrede wrote to KPB Mayor Mike Navarre and KPB Assembly President Hal Smalley on Oct. 14. “This site has now been identified as a likely location for the proposed new public safety building. The city consultants have been asked to prepare site plans that might accommodate recreation facilities as well. The council thought it was important to clarify that it has no immediate plans to sell or dispose of the property. However, it still thinks it is important to have that option available.”

The largest building on the site, the former Homer Intermediate School, includes a gym currently being used seven days a week for various community recreation activities. Users have opposed the sale or demolition of the building before the council and the borough. However, Kelly Cooper, who represents Homer on the assembly, said no new testimony was given either at the assembly’s Nov. 25 meeting. 

“I see people all over Homer and speak to them about it and while I think they’re not pleased and wish we would have delayed or stopped it (the restrictions removal), the phased project the city’s doing on the safety building is buying them some time,” said Cooper. She was referring to a multi-phased project to construct the public safety building that would delay demolition of the gym. 

In August, Mayor Beth Wythe sponsored a resolution identifying a town center site as suitable for a new community center. Kate Crowley of ReCreate Rec, a grassroots group formed to address recreational, wellness and extracurricular needs of southern peninsula residents, said she is becoming “more comfortable” with the possibility of another recreation facility one day replacing the HERC.

“Regardless, what I want the council to be aware of is that, say this whole public safety building thing goes through, great, but if it doesn’t get passed, if voters vote down a bond to get the funding for the building, then what happens?” said Crowley, expressing concern the public hadn’t been listened to in the decision-making process. “I guess we’re heading in one direction with it, but did we really get to weigh in on it? I felt like we didn’t.”

Deb Lowney, a member of the city’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission, found removal of the restrictions worrisome.

“I’m concerned about it being lifted from the standpoint that I hate to think about losing that piece of property, a recreational property,” said Lowney. “That, to me, was huge. … We’re losing a lot with no real clear sight of how we’re going to gain any of it back, if we will gain it back.”

Lowney recognized the condition of the HERC would make it costly to keep.

“Nobody has put any attention into it and it’s just kind of worn out,” she said. “If we’re going to keep it, we would have to put some money into it, no doubt. It can’t stay as it is.” 

Lowney is “sitting in the middle” between wanting to keep the HERC for recreation purposes and supporting that piece of property’s use for a new safety building and developing a plan for a new community center.

“I can get behind a group that finds the energy and feels they can get the traction to get something new on board, but I’m just wondering about what that’ll do to our community to get it started. How would we fund a new facility?” said Lowney. 

Ken Castner, chair of the city’s Public Safety Building Review Committee, said removal of the deed restrictions wouldn’t impact the committee’s work.

“It allows the city to find alternative ways of putting a deal together,” said Castner. “By removing the deed restrictions, it now allows them, if they wanted to consider it, to take on alternative means of financing it and possibly taking on a private partner.”

Wrede addressed other benefits in his Oct. 14 letter.

“If the city decided to build a new public safety building or recreation facility at this location, there are questions about whether lending institutions would accept the land as security with those encumbrances attached,” said Wrede. “The restrictionss could be construed to prevent the city from leasing to private businesses even if the rent were used to support public services.”

Wrede said the restrictions also would prevent the city from selling the land and using the proceeds to fund the city’s permanent fund, “the earnings of which are dedicated to funding public services, keeping taxes low and supporting local nonprofits.”