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Homer Spit: More valuable for industrial use or outdoor recreating?

Carey Restino | The Homer Tribune
Should a valuable piece of land on the Homer Spit, initially purchased to support harbor activities in the Alaska port, be used for nonprofit outdoor, educational and arts activities? Or is the land too valuable for harbor, dock and industrial purposes? Loren Holmes photo

HOMER -- A conversation about how best to use a parcel of Homer Spit land on which one of Homer’s landmarks, Pier One Theatre, sits sparked concern from some residents after the city council discussion included talk of possibly asking the theater to relocate. Should the Spit parcel, initially purchased to support port and harbor activity, be used for nonprofit outdoor, educational and arts activities? Or is the land too valuable for marine industrial purposes?

City planner Rick Abboud, as well as others on the Homer City Council, said the conversation is a good one.The council wanted to have a plan for how to make decisions on that, Abboud said. The land, south of the Homer Fishing Hole, was originally purchased with funds from the Port and Harbor enterprise fund, according to initial research into the parcel’s history. While the original intent of the early 1980s purchase isn’t completely clear, it is possible the city was thinking the parcel might be used to extend the harbor, Abboud said.

Over the years, however, its purpose morphed. A camping area, now minimally maintained, was put on the parcel. And Pier One Theatre took up residence in a storage building owned by the city, leasing the space for summer community theater performances and paying a dollar a year to the city for rent on a year-to-year basis. Meanwhile, Homer’s marine industrial business continued to grow, and parts of the land became a popular haul-out spot for barge work.

More recently, two new entities have emerged, hoping to use parts of the parcel. The Wooden Boat Society, a nonprofit that puts on the Wooden Boat Festival each fall, wants to lease a quarter acre of the land for a building to house education and recreation-related activities related to wooden boats. And the spot is also being talked about as a location for a kayak haul-out facility in conjunction with the Kachemak Water Trail being developed in Kachemak Bay.

Dave Seaman, president of the Wooden Boat Society, said the society has been working with the city on establishing a lease for many years and hopes the current conversation is moving them closer to an agreement. He said the society hopes that the city will lease them the land at the current rate for nonprofits, which he estimated would cost the society around $5,000 a year, and then donate some of that rent back to the society in the name of supporting economic development. He said the vision the society has for the land is to provide recreation-related programs for all ages as well as a resource library for books and magazines related to wooden boat building. He said in other communities, such as Port Townsend, Wash., wooden boat activities are well received and an economic engine. He noted that the vast majority of the Spit is dedicated to marine industrial uses, and improved recreation and activity-related opportunities would be well received by visitors and residents alike.

Homer Mayor Beth Wythe said that if the city is going to embrace nonprofit use on the parcel of land, it somehow needs to reimburse the port and harbor enterprise fund. Wythe said the city is looking at possibly transferring land not being used for marine industrial purposes to Parks and Recreation, for example. That way, the enterprise fund wouldn’t be losing revenue from land originally purchased to support it.

Wythe said while nonprofits like Pier One Theatre and the Wooden Boat Society are valuable, Homer remains largely a marine community and needs to make sure it protects the interests of that community.

To devalue that in any way seems inappropriate, she said, noting that part of what makes Homer’s Spit interesting to visitors is the fact that it is a working harbor, where fish are still unloaded and vessels prepare for sea.

Wythe said if such a land transfer is made, the city could explore a wide range of ways to reimburse the harbor fund for the land. She also said transferring the land would allow entities like Pier One to have longer leases and more stability.

Abboud said it’s likely the conversation will continue for some time as the details of the land’s initial intended use as well as the desires of the community and the council emerge. There is the possibility that the land could be subdivided with a portion retained for nonprofit and recreational use and another area retained for marine industrial activity.

The council will take the conversation up again in future meetings, Abboud said.

We are doing some research into what the land’s original intended use was and how much we paid for it, Abboud said. "I don’t think we’d ever want to wipe the whole lot clean and put industrial activity right up to the fishing hole."