Borough assembly withdraws marijuana ordinance

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly on Tuesday opted not to introduce a controversial ordinance to ask voters whether commercial marijuana operations should be legal outside of cities on Tuesday.

Assembly President Blaine Gilman, who sponsored the ordinance, withdrew it at the assembly’s Tuesday meeting, held in Seward.

The proposed ordinance would have asked voters whether commercial marijuana operations should be legal in the borough outside the cities. Members of the public came out divided on the topic, testifying for hours at the April 5 assembly meeting both for and against the ordinance.

Gilman explained the withdrawal, saying his opinion has not changed but that the decision should begin with a citizen-generated ballot initiative.

“There is going to be an initiative (through) process which citizens are going to bring this issue forward — I expect that there will be sufficient signatures and it will be an issue that is on the ballot in October,” Gilman said.

Gilman said he still opposes the commercialization of marijuana because of potential danger for children through the sale of edibles and the lack of a commercial banking system available for marijuana business owners. All business, including payroll and taxes, will have to be conducted in cash, which he said concerns him.

“These are serious issues that I think our community needs to debate, and I think we will debate them, and I think in October we will have an opportunity to vote on it,” Gilman said.

Bob Thraves, a resident of Soldotna, did submit an informal petition to the assembly at the April 5 meeting bearing 300 signatures in support of the ordinance. However, most were from residents of Soldotna or Kenai, who would not have a vote — only residents of the borough outside the cities would have a vote if the ordinance did make its way to the ballot.

Thraves said he was not sure he would move forward with pursuing a ballot initiative, partially because of the obstacle of obtaining enough signatures outside the cities. However, he said he would look into it, but it was not a one-man job.

“The reason I presented the numbers on the petition was to try to get at least three people (on the assembly) that would realize that the people here have already voted against marijuana,” Thraves said. “My sadness is that it doesn’t seem to make any difference at all.”

Leif Abel, the chair of the Marijuana Task Force an a co-founder of Greatland Ganja in Kasilof, sad he was pleased that the ordinance was withdrawn. He said he thought the borough established a good process for permitting licensees on the peninsula through the task force and the public process.

The petition and effort to get the vote on the ballot will be a difficult one, he said. Proponents of the ordinance cited state figures that the ordinance did not pass in the borough and thus would likely not pass if it came to a vote again, but the voting districts do not line up with the city limits, so it is hard to tell what the outcome would be if the ordinance is put to a vote in the borough outside the cities, he said.

“I think the majority of the signatures they collected for that petition were from inside the cities,” Abel said. “The signatures they have to collect have to be from people in the general borough.”

Although the Marijuana Task Force formally concluded its mission in January when it reached a set of recommendations for marijuana regulation in the borough, a special meeting will be held Thursday night to discuss proposed legislation in the borough assembly. Gilman’s ordinance was originally up for discussion, but now that it has been withdrawn, the remaining ordinance for discussion is one proposed by assembly member Stan Welles to increase the distance between marijuana establishments and schools, churches and correctional facilities and setting a minimum distance between marijuana establishments and local option zoning districts.

The meeting will be held at 6 p.m. Thursday in the borough assembly chambers.

The assembly also withdrew an objection to the issuance of a liquor license for a Ninilchik store at its Tuesday meeting. The debate over the license, which belongs to the Ninilchik General Store on the Sterling Highway, has been ongoing since September and brought forward discussions about the borough’s laws regarding buffers around alcohol establishments.

The assembly voted to change its method of measuring distances between alcohol establishments and churches, schools and playgrounds in February, keeping the mandatory distance at 500 feet but making it a pedestrian walking route rather than a line as the crow flies.

After the change, the Ninilchik General Store squeaked in under the requirement — by Borough Planning Director Max Best’s measurement, the distance between the store and a church that objected to the license is almost exactly 500 feet. Best measured it twice to make sure the borough had documented the distance between both doors of the church, said Borough Mayor Mike Navarre. The door to the liquor store was located at the back of the store, which added extra distance, according to a map attached to a memo from the Planning Department.

James Clark, the store’s owner, testified at the meeting that the assembly should go with the planning director’s recommendation.

“I think anybody can come up with all kinds of different scenarios of distance,” Clark said. “I think we have to rely on the professionals, which in this case is your planning director. … This issue’s been going on a long time, and it’s frustrating for everybody — you and us.”

Several assembly members who originally opposed the license on the grounds of not wanting to add more alcohol outlets to a small community and worried for the safety of children because of the proximity of the church said they would not oppose the license any longer because the borough had done its duty. Assembly member Kelly Cooper, who originally opposed the license, said she could not oppose the license any longer.

“In the spirit of the law, I think we’ve done our due diligence,” Cooper said.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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