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After debate, Homer makes move toward natural gas

Michael ArmstrongHomer News
A look at the Homer Spit. A 73-mile long pipeline will be built to bring natural gas to city homeowners. Courtesy Peter Law

Homer City Council has finally voted on an ordinance creating the Natural Gas Homer Special Assessment District.

Seven months after the process began, the council unanimously approved the special assessment district that funds construction of a 73-mile, $12.7 million natural gas distribution line serving almost every city property from the Homer Spit to Skyline Drive. Property owners -- including condominiums -- will pay $3,283 a lot.

"I'm glad we as a council had a unanimous decision here," said council member Beau Burgess, who had strongly advocated for a city-wide build-out. "It helps keep things moving forward."

Two additional pieces of legislation, an ordinance authorizing the city to issue a bond to finance construction of the gas line and a resolution approving a construction agreement with Enstar Natural Gas Co. to build it, were postponed until the next council meeting.

The city received three requests-for-proposals from potential bond companies and would like to have further discussions with the highest scorer, said City Manager Walt Wrede. The city also has to work out some contract details with Enstar.

The council also approved an amended ordinance allowing low-income property owners to request a deferral of the assessment. If granted, the assessment would pass to the heirs of those low-income property owners or to a new owner if the lot sold. The council amended the ordinance setting the qualifying income from 100 percent to 125 percent of the federal poverty level of $13,970 for a single-person household or $28,820 for a four-person household. An estimated 100 to 200 households would be eligible.

The vote on the assessment district didn't come without spirited dissent. A vote by property owners received 540 objections out of 3,855 properties, or 14 percent opposed. That was far below the 51 percent threshold needed to spike the idea.  One group opposed were condominium owners. The city defined properties as real property, not just physical land lots.

"The law is very clear that a condo unit is assessed as real property," city attorney Tom Klinkner told the council.

Ken Castner, who is a partner in an office condominium building, said assessing condo units seemed arbitrary. "I'm not real happy with my city government at this point," he said. "We owe one another as citizens of this town to have some conversation."

One elderly woman, Gloria Corey, spoke of the hardship the assessment would have on her and her husband. "I'm pleading with you not to make the years Bill and I have left to make it worse," she said.

Others said the money would be better spent on alternative energy like tidal power. Others said the process seemed irregular, with a non-response considered in favor of the assessment. Some said the process seemed rushed.

"Please, step back. Has anybody said, 'Yeah, let's build the pipeline'? Anybody in this room except you guys?" asked Pauline Wagner.

While nobody spoke up in reply to Wagner, council member James Dolma said he had heard from plenty of people in favor of the gas line. He said with the savings in energy costs from natural gas, some would be able to pay back their assessments quickly. Figures from Enstar show that natural gas is at least 30 percent less than the cost of fuel oil, the next cheapest heating source. "Not a single person who is going to have a one-season, one-year payback has spoken today," Dolma said, "but they've spoken to me."

Council member Bryan Zak tried to amend the assessment district so that condos wouldn't be assessed separately, but that failed for lack of a second.

Enstar has already started planning and other work for construction of the trunk line coming from Anchor Point to Homer along the Old Sterling Highway, Sterling Highway, West Hill Road and Fairview Avenue. That line will continue to East End Road and Kachemak City, which also is building a distribution line. Construction of the trunk line and the first phase of the build out will start this summer, with gas service starting to some customers then.

"This is something we need," said Zoe Story, a member of Promoting Health Among Teens, or PHAT.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.  Used with permission.