Former Seldovia, Alaska, police chief takes over on June 27

By Don Nelson

The Town of Winthrop is about to again have a police force — although still not fully staffed.

Mayor Sue Langdalen announced at last week’s council meeting that the town has hired Hal Henning, the police chief in Seldovia, Alaska, to become the town marshal. Henning will start on June 27, she said.

Seldovia, with population of about 250, is a landlocked town on the coast of Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula that is reachable only by boat or airplane. The town is in a spectacularly scenic setting and is a popular tourist destination.

With about 400 people, Winthrop isn’t much bigger and is also tourism-dependent, but is less remote.

Henning emerged from the town’s second round of applicants for the two law enforcement officer openings in the marshal’s office. Three candidates the town earlier considered were rejected after background checks.

The marshal’s office will be starting over from scratch. Winthrop hasn’t had its own police officers since Acting Marshal Ken Bajema resigned in December 2015. Police officers from other local agencies have been covering the town on a temporary basis.

Before Bajema resigned late last year, former Marshal Rikki Schwab had resigned in July 2015. Two other officers had left the force in the previous six months, and when Schwab left Bajema became the interim marshal.

The marshal’s office has had three full-time officers in the past, but the council agreed earlier to reduce the full-time force to two at Bajema’s suggestion before he resigned. It is expected that the town will continue to look for a deputy to assist Henning.

A policing issue also generated discussion at last week’s council meeting. Council member Rick Northcott noted that, without anyone directing traffic in town during Memorial Day weekend, long lines of vehicles formed from the four-way stop at Riverside Avenue.

“I thought someone was going to be there,” Northcott said. “Not having officers is no excuse.”

Pedestrian crossings during busy traffic times are a major concern, he said.

“We have to have a plan in place so that traffic is flowing better through there,” Northcott said. “We’re getting more and more people.”

Langdalen said the town will develop a plan, and the new marshal’s arrival will help.

In other business, the council adopted an ordinance that bans consumer fireworks in town at all times, including the Fourth of July, except from 6 p.m. on Dec. 31 to 1 a.m. on Jan. 1 of the new year.

Public fireworks displays such as the traditional Christmas at the End of the Road show on the weekend after Thanksgiving will be allowed under a permit.

Under provisions of state law, the new ordinance won’t take effect until June 2017.

The council also approved an off-street parking mitigation agreement that will allow Russ and Kathy Podmayer, who are remodeling a residence for commercial use and overnight rental units at 110 Riverside Ave., to have only two parking spaces rather than the six required by code. In exchange, the Podmayers will pay $1,500 to the town for each parking space they don’t provide.

The money will go into the town’s off-street parking mitigation account, which is used to develop more public parking within the town.

Council members also commented on a progress report by Town Planner Rocklynn Culp on the proposed Riverwalk along the Chewuch River and other town trail projects.

Culp said in a memo to the council that the Washington State Department of Transportation will require that the “rip rap” under the Highway 20 bridge, under which a portion of the Riverwalk pedestrian trail would pass, be repaired. That would affect the river level, which would then bring in several other federal agencies that are involved with conditions affecting several species of fish. “It’s tricky,” Culp said in the memo, adding that the town is developing design alternatives to keep the project moving forward.

“Despite the challenges, I remain optimistic we’ll get it figured out, though it will take longer than we originally planned,” Culp said.

Council member Mike Strulic was less optimistic. He expressed concern about the time and money that will need to spent revising plans and working with a variety of government agencies. “It seems like a huge waste of money to me,” he said. “I think it will be a fiasco. It doesn’t seem to pencil out.”

Council member Anne Acheson suggested that it’s too soon to know what the town might have to do, and that the pedestrian underpass is an important part of the Riverwalk project.

Culp also reported that design work is progressing on the new downtown park at the former site of the Arrowleaf Bistro building, which was recently demolished.

The site will be developed as a landscaped park with access to the Chewuch River, privately financed by Jim and Gaye Pigott, owners of Moccasin Lake Ranch.

After the park is complete, the Pigotts will donate it to the town, which will then take over its maintenance.

Culp said the site has been covered with clean local fill dirt. The town has begun the process of shoreline development permitting, which should be completed by this month.

The park’s preliminary design includes benches, trees, other plantings, plank walkways, a rockery border and a gravel path to the river. The design has been passed along to the town’s Westernization Architectural Committee for review.