For the past 18 years, along Freight Dock Road near the Homer Spit, L.H. and Marcia Pierce have run a sweet little Spit operation, Sportsman’s Supply. Halfway between the Nick Dudiak Fishing Lagoon and the load-launch ramp, the tackle and bait shop serves fishermen heading out to Kachemak Bay or trying their luck at the Fishin’ Hole.
The Pierces also run a small, 10-space recreational vehicle campground by the store. From Soldotna, the Pierces live in a motorhome parked next to the shop, their home from February to October as well as the store’s office.
Too bad, the city has told the Pierces.
When their lease is up for renewal in March 2018, they will have to shut down their small motorhome campground and maybe even move their summer home.
Built on a 7,800-square-foot lot leased from the city, the RV park violates city zoning regulations that say an RV park must be a minimum of 40,000 square-feet. When they started the process to renew their lease for another 10 years, the city told the Pierces they couldn’t operate a campground. They also were told they couldn’t live in their own motorhome there, not even using it as a caretaker’s home.
At the June 26 Homer City Council meeting, the council unanimously approved a memorandum directing City Planner Rick Abboud to write an ordinance to change zoning in the Marine Commercial district to allow Spit businesses like Sportsman’s Supply to use motorhomes or trailers as caretaker or owner lodging. That ordinance will go to the Homer Advisory Planning Commission and the Port and Harbor Commission for their review over the next few months. After the commissions have had their say, the ordinance comes to the council for its consideration.
“I don’t want our actions to be so burdensome it inhibits them from being successful,” said council member Heath Smith, who introduced the memo. “We’re partners. We depend on the tax revenues they produce. We want to create a climate that helps them succeed.”
Marcia Pierce said they get a lot of return visitors who come up to stay at their small campground. The little park earns the couple about $70,000 annually — $5,250 in taxes that goes to the city and Kenai Peninsula Borough.
How many motorhomes would be allowed per business or lot would need to be worked out.
“It can’t be one per business,” Smith said. “If you look at those boardwalks, they have 10 businesses out there. It might have to be one per lot owner. It has to be zoned right.”
In the Marine Commercial district, as long as they meet the 40,000-square-foot minimum and other conditions, RV parks are allowed, such as Heritage RV Park on English Bay Native corporation land or the Homer Campground on city land. Caretaker cabins are allowed as an accessory use. Many Spit businesses, such as the buildings on the Cannery Row Boardwalk across from Coal Point Trading Company, have small upstairs apartments. Some businesses have motorhomes parked on their lots, though, such as Happy Face Restaurant and Coal Point.
Parking an RV is legal, but outside of a permitted RV park, in the Marine Commercial District, staying in one is not. In residential zoning districts, people can stay in recreational vehicles parked next to homes for up to 90 days total in a year. City code uses the term “recreational vehicle” to refer to “temporary lodging for travel, recreational and vacation use, and which is either self-propelled, mounted on or pulled by another vehicle.”
Smith noticed the issue with noncomplying motorhomes used as caretaker homes when the Sportsman’s Supply issue came up.
“It became clear that was one of the code violations there,” Smith said. “That opened our eyes to the fact that there are several businesses out there that have that need.”
Pierce said the issue initially arose when the natural gas pipeline came in, and surveyors checked lot corners. That survey found all of one and half of another of the motorhome lots were over the property line. In the history of Sportsman’s Supply, the issue of not having a large enough lot for an RV park never came up.
The Pierces bought the business from the John Chapple III family, who in turn bought it from Dickie Gregoire.
When the Pierces renewed their lease in 2008, Sportsman’s Supply got to have the RV park.
“Everything you see was here when we came,” Marcia Pierce said last Thursday. “Nothing (about the RVs) was brought up then. Not a thing,” Pierce said.
Homer Harbormaster Bryan Hawkins said the Pierces aren’t the first people to be told to move motorhomes. Not that many people stay in them, but a few do. Some people have been caught by surprise, he said.
“They realize that wasn’t allowed and we’ve had to call them to task over it,” Hawkins said. “Sometimes there was resistance because it didn’t meet their plans.”
Hawkins, Abboud and City Manager Katie Koester’s team review the about 25 upland leases around the harbor. None of them were senior officials with the city in 2008 when the Pierces last renewed their lease.
The lease renewal process gives the city leverage to address zoning issues.
“There was an issue that got through. Now we’re scrutinizing that lease because it’s coming up for its end of its term,” Hawkins said. “At that time we have to sit down and look at that property and see what’s going on.”
So why didn’t the 10-unit RV park get dinged before? Hawkins said partly that reflects the growing demand for leases. When Gregoire built the park in the 1980s, the Spit had a lot of available land.
“Today there’s not. Every time a lease comes up for renewal or transfer, we’re looking at it through today’s view,” Hawkins said. “Is this the highest and best use? … It’s more strict now than it used to be.”
Hawkins said he understands how a business owner might feel.
“Now you’re the one in the hot seat. Of course you’re going to look at your neighbor and say ‘What about them?’” he said.
The city also could enforce zoning regulations more strictly.
“Then we’d be accused of not being business friendly,” Hawkins said. “You’re trying to balance it. You’re trying to be fair.”
Pierce said they plan to comply with the city’s lease renewal conditions and hope that the caretaker zoning change will come through.
“I’m just trying to get this past,” she said. “I’ve been here 18 years. It’s not like I haven’t paid my taxes.”