Growth on Kenai Peninsula Affects 'Last Frontier' Ethos

Shaylon Cochran

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     As business, industry and population continue to grow on the Kenai Peninsula, residents and elected officials continue to grapple with the question of how to facilitate that growth in terms of the size of government and the specific roles it plays. We take a closer look at the ongoing issue of land use and management in the Borough.

    When census data was first taken on the Kenai Peninsula in 1940, the population stood at about 2,600 people. In the ensuing 72 years, it’s grown by more than 2,000% to nearly 57,000 people. In that time, the Borough has been incorporated and five organized municipalities have sprung up.

     Infrastructure has grown to serve the needs of those communities and the service industry, too. In Kenai, where there was once just a dirt road and a few lonely cabins there is now a four-lane highway, six stoplights, fast food joints and modern shopping. One thing that hasn’t grown as quickly, though, or as much, is Borough oversight in those unincorporated areas, like Nikiski, Sterling or Anchor Point.

     “As things have changed, it’s met up with conflicts, not intentionally so,” said Borough Mayor Mike Navarre, himself a lifelong resident of the Kenai.

     “For example, our subdivision ordinance. It used to be that people would go out and build a house and their neighbor would be a mile away or more. And then pretty soon as more people moved in because of oil and gas activity in the early 60′s we started seeing more development. People started developing subdivisions and they did it sort of happenstance, just draw on a piece of paper where the lot lines are going to be, survey them out and sell them,” Navarre said.

     That example is one of many of the sort of growing pains that the Kenai has gone through and continues to go through today. Another example can be found in the regulation of gravel pits. Though more rules are in place now than in the 60’s or 70’s that help limit the negative impacts of such a venture, it can still be an uneasy relationship between residents and the industries around them.

     Louise Heite is hoping to start a greenhouse business in the Miller Loop area of Nikiski in her retirement, but there are concerns with water quality due to a proposed gravel pit. Despite those concerns, if the pit meets the standards of the Borough code, there’s really no appeal process. She says that needs to change, as does the Last Frontier mentality that makes instituting new regulations difficult.

     “When you have that intense residential land use, you no longer have a frontier. We don’t have a place where, you know, Pa Ingalls in the ‘Little House on the Prairie’ books used to say it was too densely populated when you could hear somebody else’s gun go off. Well, we don’t have that place anymore. You can hear a gun go off. It’s not frontier. It’s not ‘you can do was you want because there’s no one around to be bothered except a couple of moose and the occasional grizzly bear’,” she said.

     “We still do have, though, the ‘Frontier’ mentality,” Navarre said. “People want to be able to do what they want. ‘It’s my land, I bought it, I own it, I get to do whatever I want with it, I don’t want the Borough telling me what I can do with it’. And then somebody next door decides they’re going to put in a gravel pit or build a shop of some kind, and they say ‘wait a minute. I don’t want my neighbor to do that because that’s affecting me.’ So it’s ‘don’t tell me what I can do, but if my neighbor is doing something I don’t like, I want you to stop him.”

     And the same holds true with issues like fish habitat protection. Despite its clear benefits, people are leery of the Borough establishing rules to dictate what activities are acceptable or not, yet still want some level of protection against damage to that habitat.

     “People don’t want the government telling them what to do and we end up with oftentimes with it not being a single point of impact, but the cumulative impact over time,” Navarre said.

     And finding solutions to these problems is something residents and the Borough government will have to work together on as the Kenai becomes home to more people and more of the businesses and industries that support them.

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