Story last updated at 6:12 p.m. Thursday, December 26, 2002

Stormy times mark 2002 in Homer
by Carey James, Sepp Jannotta and Mark Kelsey
Staff Writers

photo: news

  Homer News file photo
The washed-out Sterling Highway bridge spanning Deep Creek is seen in this aerial photo taken during flooding in October that cut off Homer from the rest of the Kenai Peninsula. Storms of the literal and figurative kind were much in the news over the course of the past year.  
During the second year of the new millennium, the Cosmic Hamlet faced some epic growing pains. Annexation, which some say was long overdue, drew nearly 900 residents into the city's fold, while new buildings and businesses sprouted on almost every corner. New leaders stepped forward at the city and state levels, while the city's manager stepped down.

Ultimately, however, it was weather that put all the change in perspective. When floods slashed Homer's roadway connection to the outside world, the growing community became a small town again as residents turned out en force to help save a home, while others rallied to build temporary bridges where old ones were washed out.

Stormy times

Homer started off the year with the stormy annexation controversy in the forefront of the news. In January, the annexation petition was reviewed by the Alaska Legislature, which took up many of the same complaints annexation opponents have had since the city announced its intent.


  Homer News file photo
Devion Hagen, 16, attempts a trick on a quarter-pipe at the new skate park that opened Sept. 12 in Homer after two years of planning and fund raising.  
Opponents said the city devised its plans in private, never held hearings to gauge public support, withheld public documents, refused to allow an advisory vote and asked for too much land. The city said it followed the letter of the law.

Council members traveled to Juneau to plead their case, and all but one promised to truncate their terms on the council, allowing those in the annexed area a chance to run for election.

After much deliberation, the House Community and Regional Affairs Committee voted 6-1 to let annexation stand.

While voting in favor of annexation, Rep. Drew Scalzi, R-Homer, said during the final debate that he "would like to whack the city" for the way it handled its annexation petition.


  Homer News file photo
Ocean Drive Loop resident Findlay Abbott checks the damaged seawall on Friday afternoon. Water running off the bluff above was trapped in the gravel and sand that reinforces the wall. Eventually the weight andpressure of the water-logged fill material broke open the fiberglass composite structure.  
With little fanfare, the letter allowing the expansion of the city boundaries for the first time in nearly 40 years arrived in March. The expansion added 4.58 square miles of territory, 890 new residents and 15 miles of road to the city.

In May, annexation opponent Abigail Fuller sued the city over access to documents she said may shed light on the controversial city expansion. Fuller contested the city's request for $354 in fees to provide all the documents she had requested copies of during the annexation debate.

In June, residents in the old city area received a half-mill rate reduction, while those recently annexed into the city saw an increase of 3.625 mills in their tax rate.

Storms of the literal kind made news several times during the year. The year was born on the heels of a vicious storm that knocked out power to hundreds, many for Christmas. Homer Electric Association scrambled to clear and repair the lines and launched a stepped-up effort to cut dead trees from around power lines.


  Homer News file photo
From left, Bob Romanco, Matt Yaki and Max Mitchell help construct a sandbag diversion wall behind Etude Studio Thursday. The studio was endangered by the rising waters of Woodard Creek.  
Heavy rain and flooding forced the closure of the Sterling Highway near Black Water Bend in May. But that was a small taste of what was to come closer to year's end, as late October rains drowned the Homer area and washed out local roads and highway bridges at Deep and Stariski creeks.

Even as roads and culverts were being cleared, rain continued to fall, and the Anchor River again spilled its banks at Black Water Bend and threatened to compromise refurbished bridges and river embankments.

When the rain finally stopped and damage was assessed, a presidential disaster declaration brought representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to the area. Many homeowners and others who had suffered loss or damage during the first storm filed claims for reimbursement. As the year wound down, claims from the first storm were being sorted and an effort was in the works for federal assistance for damage caused by the second storm.

Rain was not the only natural phenomenon that wreaked havoc on the area. Strong winds teamed up with a 23.2-foot high tide the first week of November to cause serious flooding along the Homer Spit.


  Homer News file photo
Representative-elect Paul Seaton and his wife, Tina, are all smiles on election night in August. Seaton, a commercial fisherman from Kachemak City, unseated incumbent Rep. Drew Scalzi in the Republican primary and earned a seat in the new Legislature because no other candidates opposed him in the general election.  
As the days of December were ticked off, weather continued to remain an issue, as residents wondered when the string of 40-degree days would end and the area's first snowfall would arrive.

With the squabble over annexation waning in February, KBBI's proposed cuts to daytime volunteer programs became Homer's "winter controversy" in early 2002. Those in favor of keeping the volunteer shows started gathering signatures on a petition as radio staff met to decide the station's programming. The station amended its proposed changes, leaving several afternoon volunteer slots in place, but replaced morning shows with nationally syndicated programs.

Later in the year, several candidates running on a platform of change and more community inclusion at the station were elected to the KBBI Board of Directors following a slower-than-usual annual fund drive. The new board members said they hoped to draw disenfranchised community members back into the station's good graces.

City issues

The city council worked through the kinks in its beach policy after District Court Judge Francis Neville dismissed four cases that arose from the new beach laws. The city formulated the new laws in part to protect city storm berms and the beaches they stabilize.

In April, nervous residents of Ocean Drive Loop eyed the eroding bluff as borough, state and federal agencies tried to decide on plans for a $1 million seawall. The red tape was eventually cleared, and the seawall was constructed in the fall, but high tides, big surf and flooding conspired to cause damage to the wall before it was even finished. A wood face and new drainage have planners hopeful the wall will hold, but some landowners remain skeptical.


  Homer News file photo
Halibut Cove resident and former state legislator Clem Tillion, right, gets a birthday greeting from Sens. Ted Stevens, middle, and Frank Murkowski at Julypis dedication ceremony for the new Pioneer Dock.  
In February, the Homer City Council voted to put several Homer Spit leases back on the market rather than grant lease extensions, meaning that the buildings and facilities at the properties along Fish Dock Road would become city property if they were not removed. Spit Businessman Marty McGee appealed to the council for an extension to no avail.

The city pondered creating a 1 percent for art law in Homer that would mandate that percentage of all city building funds to an artistic feature. While some council members said the art ordinance would pull crucial money away from future projects, like the library, others argued that, as an arts community, Homer should invest in the artful elements. The ordinance passed after amendments including a cap of $70,000, and a minimum project cost of $250,000, were passed.

The Homer Town Square project continued to search for support from the city, as well as other landowners. Proponents say the square, proposed in an undeveloped block of land in the center of town, would add significant value to the town's central business district.

The Town Square idea links to many other ongoing Homer projects, including the development of land along the Poopdeck Trail and the site selection of the proposed new library. The idea took a blow near the end of the year, however, as Fred Meyer announced it was talking with Cook Inlet Region Inc. about a large chunk of land in the proposed Town Square.



  Homer News file photo
Masons work on one of the circular towers of the new Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitors Center being constructed on the Sterling Highway. The center is expected to open in Octobe  
In November, the newly elected city council made a significant impression when news leaked to the media that the votes were in hand to call for the resignation of City Manager Ron Drathman. Drathman submitted a letter of resignation days later, saying that it had become apparent that "the newly elected council intends to go in a different direction."

Drathman, touted by many as an effective city manager, also drew criticism from others for being unapproachable and terse in his management and interpersonal style.

As the year ended, the council began searching for a new city manager, with 29 applications filed from all over the country as well as closer to home.



  Homer News file photo
Homer News file photo City Manager Ron Drathman resigned the position he has held for four years in November. The city is currently narrowing its list of candidates to replace him.  
Seldovia also found itself conducting a search for a new city manager, when Ken Weaver announced his resignation in early October. After two years on the job, Weaver left to accept a similar position in Fayette, Mo.

Making the grade

It was a "good news, bad news" year for area schools. Homer students registered high marks on standardized tests, and several teachers, along with Superintendent Donna Peterson earned individual honorsand Homer High band instructor Bill Searle received the BP Teacher of the Year award for the peninsula.

But news of potential violence in schools also made headlines during the year, as students at McNeil Canyon and Nikolaevsk schools were arrested for threatening behavior after allegedly claiming to be planning to bring guns to school. Another student, a 14-year-old from Homer Middle School, was also arrested after it was discovered he had brought a handgun and ammunition to school.

Overshadowing all school news during 2002 were the contract negotiations between the school district and unions representing teachers and support staff. Talks got off to a slow start and were quickly inflamed by allegations that Kenai Peninsula Education Association members had intentionally infiltrated the district's e-mail system and looked at e-mail correspondence between district administrators and education board members.

The allegations sparked a stream of legal action between the unions and the district, slowing talks to a crawl. By the fall, teachers were working without a new contract and talks reached an impasse. A mediator was unable to bring the sides together, and they entered the new year waiting for advisory arbitration to be scheduled.

Hellos and goodbyes

A trifecta of elections sent voters to the polls in August, October and November.

In August's primary, commercial fisherman Paul Seaton, unhappy over the fisheries-related policies of incumbent Rep. Drew Scalzi, successfully challenged Republican Scalzi for his seat in the Legislature. With no Democratic or third-party candidate on the ballot, the primary victory propelled Seaton to the role of Representative-elect, and the end of the year found him preparing to travel to Juneau for the opening of the 23rd Legislature in mid-January.

Statewide redistricting last year redrew voting boundaries and grouped Homer with Kodiak in a new Senate district. Area voters said hello to incumbent Sen. Alan Austerman, R-Kodiak, who ran unopposed for the new district seat and will represent them in Juneau for the next four years.

The October municipal election saw few changes, as voters seemed to express approval of most incumbents on the city council and borough assembly and gave incumbent Homer Mayor Jack Cushing and Borough Mayor Dale Bagley another term, too.

With legislative seats decided in the August primary, there was little of local interest on the November general election ballot. But Homer voters helped propel former U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski to the governor's mansion while bidding farewell to Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer, who opposed him.

Area residents bid final farewells to a many civic leaders, homesteaders and longtime residents who died in the past year. Among them: Joy Griffin, Harris Lee Gordon, clyde "Woody" Woodhead, Juanita N. Melsheimer, Arlene Kunz, Riley Meganack, Louise Mitchell, John Hillstrand, Linnea Sabayan, Michael Daugherty, Vega Pratt, Albert Sorensen, David Forbes, Larry Clendenen, Leo Rhode, Carroll Griffeth and James Manley.

Development and industry

In late April, just weeks after announcing plans to build a natural gas pipeline spur that would eventually connect Homer and other lower Kenai Peninsula communities to central peninsula supplies of the economical heating commodity, officials with Unocal and Marathon Oil said a line beyond Ninilchik was not currently feasible. Exploratory wells in Anchor Point, which would have helped make the pipeline extension more economically feasible, did not produce.

The companies have obtained the state permits necessary to construct a pipeline that connects Ninilchik with Soldotna, and officials won't rule out a line to Homer in the future.

Commercial fishermen on the peninsula and elsewhere were stunned to learn that boat and fishing permit broker Debbie Moore of Homer made off with nearly $330,000 of her clients money, apparently as part of a get-rich-quick scheme. Moore claimed she had lost the money to a Nigerian money-laundering scam. She was sentenced in August to four years in prison.

Part of Homer's expanding efforts to lure the large cruise ship traffic to Kachemak Bay, the new Pioneer Dock -- a deepwater dock that was built around the 37-year old wooden large-ship dock -- was dedicated in a July ceremony that drew many of the state's top dignitaries.

Residents also welcomed a host of new or relocated commercial operations.

The long-awaited new Save-U-More opened the doors of its larger new space on the Sterling Highway this month. And the Salvation Army store and Kachemak Bay Title also opened new locations during 2002, while work continues on the new Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitors Center and Alaska USA Federal Credit Union, both on the Sterling Highway.

These led a minor boom in commercial real estate development in the area that promises to continue into the new year.

Just for fun

Some stories are a joy to report, and Phil Christensen's $12,000 Homer Winter King Salmon Tournament victory in March was such a story. He told the Homer News that his 41.82-pound winning king would help him pay off outstanding medical bills.

Winter king salmon were a hot news topic in their own right in 2002, as a months-long lobbying battle and an exhaustive round of meetings resulted in sport fishermen of Southcentral Alaska winning back their winter king fisheries. In its October ruling, the Alaska Board of Fisheries restored a fishery that has delighted a select group of saltwater anglers for years.

Last winter, the Alaska Board of Fisheries eliminated the seasonal exemption for winter kings and included the fishery within the annual limit of five king salmon.

In the argument that followed, the angling community said that the size of the fishery, which is limited and involves only a handful of coastal communities, did not justify the new rules. In the end, the Fish Board and the anglers agreed on a compromise that returned the fishery to its winter/no annual limit state but enacted an overall catch ceiling for each community's region.

And in a more well-known fishery, the Homer Jackpot Halibut Derby paid Eagle River angler Clayton McDowell $48,675 for the 347-pound halibut he caught in July. The payout was a record for the 17-year-old fishing derby, which is Alaska's largest. The winning fish was the third largest ever landed in the derby.

A decidedly soggy fall was brightened by the news in September that Homer had a newly paved skateboarding park adjacent to the Homer Boys and Girls Club. Following the eventual purchase of the standard skate park gear -- fund-raising efforts are ongoing -- the new location will be officially dedicated, finally taking Homer's skaters out of the criminal fringe.

Like the skakeboarders, the Homer Hockey Association took a big step in 2002, when it closed a deal in March with Homer Electric Association to take over 4 acres of downtown property. The hockey association had been hunting for a centrally located parcel to put an indoor refrigerated rink for many years.

Hopes were high for a rink to go in at the Lake Street site for 2002, but momentum stalled over the summer as the hockey association met with the Homer Planning Advisory Commission and it was decided to hold off on a new building until 2003.