Panel recommends HERC site for new public safety building

With community members still asking for more discussion, a committee last week recommended city-owned property at the corner of the Sterling Highway and Pioneer Avenue as the site of choice for a new public safety building.

This week, an ordinance was introduced at the borough assembly that would lift a deed restriction on the property popularly known as HERC, the Homer Education and Recreation Complex.

Ordinance 2014-31, sponsored by Bill Smith, Homer’s out-going representative on the assembly, and Borough Mayor Mike Navarre, would lift a restriction “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 property and buildings, formerly Homer Intermediate School, were sold to the city by the borough in 1998 for $1. 

In September 2013, the Homer City Council passed Resolution 13-096, stating the city’s inability to afford operations and maintenance of the buildings. It included the council’s decision that demolishing buildings on the site in favor of a new public safety building was “in the best interest of the community” and that selling the property would provide proceeds to be directed “to the use and benefit of the general public.” 

The resolution requested the borough lift the deed restriction so the city could best determine 

the site’s future.

A letter to Navarre and the borough assembly from Homer City Manager Walter Wrede clarified the city council’s position.

“This site has now been identified as a likely location for the proposed new public safety building,” said Wrede. “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.”

Other public comments urged the assembly to keep the restrictions in place.

“I urge the (KPB) Planning Commission and Assembly to retain the deed restrictions and direct the city of Homer to do more work to see how the needs of the community can be met for both public recreation, education, youth programs and public safety,” said area resident Nina Faust.

Mary Griswold also asked that the ordinance be withdrawn to give the city of Homer time to reconsider its request “and better justify its reasons if it decides to move ahead.” 

Public hearings on the ordinance will be held at the borough assembly’s Oct. 28 and Nov. 25 meetings. Another public hearing is scheduled before the KPB Planning Commission on Nov. 10.

At its Oct. 8 meeting, the city’s Public Safety Building Review Committee agreed the HERC site was the preferred site for a new public safety building. A memo stating the committee’s selection has been prepared and will be on the agenda for the next regular Homer City Council meeting, Oct. 27, according to Mayor Beth Wythe, who also sits on the committee.

Using a matrix to evaluate the site, the HERC site was rated positively for being larger than four acres. According to a space needs assessment done by Loren Berry Architect and USKH, now Stantec, a single-story building combining the police and fire department would need 4.66 acres of land. A two-story building would need 4.31 acres. The site also received points for being above the flood and tsunami zones and for having a natural gas line nearby.

Ken Castner, chairman of the committee, said he would entertain a motion to select the HERC site if the memo also included mitigations needing to be addressed: the site’s proximity to Homer Middle School, wetlands located on the site, the buildings on the site currently being used by Public Works personnel and for Community Recreation activities, and costs to prepare the site for construction. The memo received the committee’s unanimous consent.

“The big mistake in all of this is that it was not vetted in proper democratic fashion,” Kathy Hill, who participates in pickleball at the HERC gym, told the committee. “I feel a real injustice has been done to the people of Homer.”

Considering possible state funding for a new public safety building, Hill said, “I would like to think the state legislature would want to know that this site had been properly vetted and not selected by so few people. At the very minimum, an advisory vote should have been requested.” 

Vicki Lowe, a Homer High School teacher who also works with students in other area schools, raised concerns about a public safety building being so near Homer Middle School.

“I would like to see support from the school district, as well as the middle school site council,” said Lowe. “I spoke to teachers there and they had no idea this is a (possibility).” 

Maria Santa Lucia has begun offering Zumba classes at the HERC through the city’s Community Recreation program. 

“This meets a need in our community for at an affordable rate. I want you to think twice before you stop use of the HERC building,” sand Santa Lucia.

In September 2013, the city council passed Resolution 13-095, authorizing the gym “for pickleball, basketball, and other Community Recreation programs that require only minimal heat and utilities until such time as the building is demolished.” A listing of scheduled activities for the week of Oct. 6-12, 2014, listed pickleball, Zumba, gymnastics and basketball, with activities happening Monday through Saturday. 

Sworn in at Tuesday’s assembly meeting to represent Homer on the borough assembly, Kelly Cooper said she is torn about the borough being asked to become involved in the matter of the HERC’s future.

“The city of Homer needs to do a step-by-step process in making sure they’re looking out for all the needs,” said Cooper. “It doesn’t make sense for the borough to interfere with the governance of Homer.”

However, having checked with lenders, Cooper said a deed restriction prohibiting sale of the property would impact the possibility to obtain funding for whatever the future holds for the site.

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

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