As part of its continuing coverage of Homer city elections, the Homer News asked candidates for mayor and Homer City Council to respond to the following questions.
Homer Mayor Ken Castner is running unopposed for re-election.
Running for city council are five candidates seeking to win one of two three-year seats up for election. Of the five, the top-two candidates win election provided they receive a plurality of votes. For a race of five or more seats, that number is 35%. In order of filing, the candidates for city council are incumbent Jason Davis, Kenneth Bryant, Mark Gordon, incumbent Storm P. Hansen, and Jay Baker.
Homer City Council candidates Storm Hansen and Jay Baker did not respond by the press deadline.
Question 1: As you may know, finding affordable housing in Homer can be a challenge, both in buying or renting a place to live. Why do you think this is a problem? What can the mayor, city council and city administration do to address this problem?
Ken Castner, candidate for mayor: I’m not a big fan of social engineering. Rentals are a business just like any other, and provide tax revenue to the city. Some municipalities have instituted rules for owner occupancy for Air B&Bs to prevent remote ownership and price escalation of the residential inventory. It may be worth considering a property tax credit for seasonal housing.
Jason Davis: This is a growing problem that is increasingly common in many tourist destinations, where large numbers of visitors staying in vacation rentals end up making it difficult for long-term residents, including the service industry workers needed to support tourism, to find affordable year-round housing. In Homer I have the impression anecdotally that the problem is exacerbated by investors, from Anchorage and beyond, buying up homes with the explicit intent of running them as vacation rentals. The city council is focused on this problem, and has already scheduled a worksession to review the scope of the challenge and to look at approaches that have already been implemented elsewhere. There are no easy solutions, and I don’t support restricting local residents from sharing their homes and outbuildings with visitors, but limiting commercial-type vacation rentals in residential neighborhoods may need to be on the table. If we do end up facilitating the development of the Town Center (the 35 vacant acres at the heart of downtown) into a new pedestrian-friendly mixed use neighborhood combining shops, cafes, restaurants, offices and green space with houses and apartments, I would support zoning that area for longer-term rentals only.
Kenneth Bryant: This question alone could easily be a 10,000 word essay as an introduction to a two-hour long form debate alone. I guess the elevator pitch would be that the primary problem is that Homer is growing and the city is being artificially held back from development and keeping in step with the growing population and needs of citizens. The quickest way for the city to address this issue is to stop restricting growth in the private sector with ordinances and such.
Mark Gordon: I see the housing situation as a seasonal issue. This is largely due to the influx of both the tourists and seasonal workers. Maybe the City could propose an incentive to landlords for seasonal rentals to workers or yearly rentals to locals instead of focusing on the tourist population.
Question 2: What do you see as three other important issues or problems in Homer now?
Castner: Storm water controls, pedestrian safety and infrastructure (sidewalks and trails), and expansion of water and sewer service.
– absence of sidewalks or bike paths in new neighborhoods that are springing up
– lack of a strong framework for ensuring that drainage is dealt with effectively as new neighborhoods go in
–insufficient support from State DOT for plowing, sweeping and maintaining many of our critically important streets and roads that are owned by the State (Sterling Highway, East End Road, West Hill, East Hill, Main Street, Kachemak Drive, etc.), and the lack of sidewalks or bike trails along many of these streets.
(A) Task forces and other organizations that are heading up project development with the leaders of these groups have no experience in the field and no expectations of coming up with practical solutions. This would include run away spending in several departments with seemingly no oversight
(B) The general health and well being of our citizens. This is everything from the opioid addiction crisis all the way down to general daily morale.
(C) Update/upgrade many of our crumbing infrastructure hubs. Yes the harbor expansion project is gaining ground, but we must not forget and give up on our existing harbor we need today. Same sentiment applies to anything else the city runs and operates.
Gordon: The issues that I hear the most about are road maintenance, public parking on the spit, and the status of a community recreational facility.
Question 3: What solutions or approaches would you take to solving these problems?
Castner: Planning, funding and finishing. One project at a time.
Davis: On sidewalks in new neighborhoods, I have cosponsored an ordinance that would require sidewalks on main streets in all new neighborhoods going forward. The ordinance, 22-42, is currently being reviewed by the city’s Planning Commission, and by the Parks, Art, Recreation and Culture Commission.
On drainage, because we live on a slope, it is vitally important that all new projects factor in drainage. Water will be flowing through new neighborhoods after they are built whether we plan for it or not, and the flow needs to be dealt with strategically, early in the development process, in part so that it doesn’t negatively affect property owners downhill. It’s my understanding that Public Works is working on a way to address this. It will also be part of the updated Comprehensive Plan that we will be crafting in the months ahead.
State DOT has undertaken some much-needed work on East and West Hill this summer, and city staff have coordinated with DOT to belatedly address the accumulation of sand and gravel on East End sidewalks and roadsides that was posing a hazard to pedestrians and cyclists. When it comes to sidewalks on State-owned roads, I think there is a growing recognition that if we want them, we may need to at least partially fund the work ourselves, in coordination with DOT of course.
Bryant: Locate those who are well educated in the fields in which we with to improve our services to the local city and surrounding communities and areas.
Gordon: I would really have to see traffic pattern reports to see if I agree with additional stoplights and crosswalks being put in. I do think that there needs to be a better response time on repairs after the winter season. Additional public parking on the spit would have to be a larger project that looks at available land. There needs to be more research done on partnerships with foundations or grants available for city improvements.
Question 4: Do you think the city of Homer is on the right path regarding infrastructure, transportation, zoning, taxation, police and fire protection, and other aspects of city government? As a council member or mayor, what would you do differently?
Castner: I think the current elected body and administration are on the right trajectory to meet the needs described above without having to raise taxes. However I would like to get the sales tax cap raised to increase the pace of finishing projects.
Davis: With the exception of the sidewalk issues mentioned above, and an urgently-needed update to our 1970s-era zoning regulations that we will be launching this fall, I do think we are on the right track. On taxation, one thing I’d like to see Council delve into is the possibility of reducing the sales tax burden on year-round residents, while maintaining or even increasing annual revenues. Because so much of our sales tax is collected during the summer months, I think it should be possible to do this, at least in principle, by increasing the tax rate slightly during the 3-4 summer months, when a small change would increase revenue significantly – and then decreasing the rate by a greater amount during the 8-9 winter months, when the impact on annual revenue would be smaller, but the savings to local residents larger and longer. This could also benefit the small business community, because year-round residents might choose to make more of their purchases during the off-season, when sales tend to be lowest for local businesses. Some summer-only residents might also choose to return earlier, or stay longer. Of course any change of this nature would require a great deal of study and public debate and discussion – and even if deemed feasible it would need to be put to voters for their approval before going into effect.
Bryant: In general I’d give credit where it’s due and has earned. It’s not the best, but it’s getting better every day. We’re off to a great start, but all of these things are rooted in how each one of them has effects on several others.
Gordon: The concerns that I hear is that the people of Homer do not want to turn our small city into a “mini Seattle.” Homer has its own identity and nuance that makes it what it is. We can grow and improve without losing that identity.
Question 5: The city of Homer as a municipal government serves as the center of commerce, marine and air transportation, and other functions for the Southern Kenai Peninsula. What should the city’s relationship be with other towns or unincorporated areas served by the city?
Castner: Beyond the city is either another city or the borough. I’m open to negotiate for providing some goods or services, but not at the expense of our tax-paying residents and businesses.
Davis: Homer should have warm, cordial and welcoming relations with all its neighbors.
Bryant: The city’s relationship should be what is always has been and that’s to be welcoming and supportive of our surrounding communities, but the city should also not exceed its reach of power. Continue making Homer one of the greatest places in the world to live, but don’t force an unincorporated area to change their policies if they already have a chosen direction.
Gordon: Homer would be a great hub for the lower Kenai Peninsula and the villages across the bay. The first step in this process would be reaching out to the unincorporated areas to ask them what they need and how we can best serve them.
Question 6: Name one or more books you’ve read or listened to in the last year that have in some way impressed you?
Castner: I haven’t had much time for reading books. I try to keep up with my New Yorker subscription.
Davis: I’m just finishing a fascinating book about beekeeping called “Honey Farming,” by R.O.B. Manley. It was written in the 1940s, but is still in print and widely read and cited, because the author was an acute observer and outside-the-box thinker, whose theories for why bees do what they do, and how that should impact a beekeeper’s strategies and activities, have proven to be surprisingly accurate as the science of bee behavior and biology has advanced in the 80 years since the book was written.