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Big Lake takes step toward becoming Mat-Su's next city

  • Author: Zaz Hollander
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published December 18, 2014

WASILLA -- Big Lake could join Palmer, Wasilla and Houston in the ranks of Valley cities if a recommendation holds from state Local Boundary Commission officials -- and locals vote for it.

Staffers with the state Local Boundary Commission say Big Lake meets the statutory requirements to become a second-class city if the five-member commission agrees, according to a 44-page preliminary report released for public review on Wednesday.

Even if the commission approves Big Lake's city petition, residents would still need a vote to approve property taxes for local roads -- taxes actually a fraction lower than the ones they pay now to the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.

Big Lake incorporation backers say they'll need to embark on a public education campaign about the millage or "mill" rate property tax, or $3 for every $1,000 of assessed property value. That's .09 mills less than the borough rate, the report says.

That tiny reduction is good, city backers say, but the "t" word could work against them. Some residents already balk at the idea of more government rather than less.

Jim Faiks, lead petitioner, worries residents at crunch time might just see "tax" and vote no.

"This is going to be a real confusing issue for the voters," Faiks said Thursday. "That's a thing that we as community supporters of this (need to make) sure people understand."

Along with Big Lake's possible incorporation as a city, the report also supports a separate petition by the city of Houston to add almost 2½ square miles to the nearly 23 the city now covers.

The staffers who wrote the report advise the five-member commission charged with establishing and modifying municipal boundaries. The commission is part of the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development.

The commission still needs to approve the Big Lake and Houston petitions. A public comment period is open through Jan. 16. The state will issue a final report after officials review the comments.

Some Big Lake residents say the time has come to become a second-class city and spend grant money and local property tax dollars on local roads and administration and perhaps parks and recreation. They also want more say over big projects such as the rail extension and prospects that a Knik Arm bridge could route new traffic through the area.

Wednesday's report agrees, saying, "Big Lake's local government needs cannot be met by the borough" and that a city government would give residents more say in future development than the existing community council has.

Incorporation would also "allow its citizens to hire and maintain a police force to serve and protect the community."

Big Lake started as a recreation destination. A 1960 estimate put the population at 74. That number is now more than 3,500, along with an elementary school, library, restaurants, stores and other businesses.

The state took the unusual step of combining the decision-making process behind the Houston and Big Lake requests earlier this year. That's because both share one chunk of land: a slightly more than 1,500-acre parcel owned by Wasilla-based Alaska Native village corporation Knikatnu Inc.

Knikatnu last year started the annexation process to take advantage of zoning and taxation benefits. The land straddles part of a planned Alaska Railroad extension from Port MacKenzie to a main line near Houston.

But the rest of the Knikatnu land falls outside of Houston -- and inside an area Big Lake incorporation backers wanted in their proposed city, drawn up based on an existing Mat-Su Borough road service area.

The commission staff sided with Houston on that one.

Houston is now the third-largest second-class city in the state behind Bethel and Kotzebue. Its population grew from 69 in 1970 to a little over 2,000 in 2013, according to the report.

The staffers found the annexation was warranted because "the population is large and stable enough to support the extension of government," it says.

If approved, the city of Big Lake would measure 68 square miles, rather than the 113 originally requested. Boundary commission staffers recommended removing several areas, including the Houston annexation area; territory near Horseshoe and Papoose Twins lakes; territory near Burma Road and Diamond Lake; and territory near Stephan and Anna lakes.