Assembly maintains liquor setback

The mandatory 500-foot distance from schools and churches for liquor licenses in the Kenai Peninsula Borough will stand, but the way it is measured will change.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly struck down a proposed change to the mandatory minimum distance law at its Tuesday meeting. The proposal would have reduced the requirement from 500 feet to 300 feet and changed the measurement method from a straight-line distance between property lines to the shortest pedestrian distance from door to door.

The discussion arose in September amid a dispute over a liquor license application in Ninilchik.

The applicant, Jim Clark, wanted to open an adjoining package liquor store in the Ninilchik General Store on the Sterling Highway.

However, it is within 500 feet of two churches and the Ninilchik School. He obtained non-objection letters from one church and the school, but the third church refused to issue a non-objection letter because the congregation opposes alcohol overall.

Clark said he repeatedly asked the pastor to grant the letter, and although the pastor at first said he would not object, he changed his mind after Clark had bought the license and built the addition on the store.

The assembly formally protested the license.

Afterward, assembly member Dale Bagley introduced an ordinance to review the borough’s liquor license setback and asked that it be closer to the state’s requirement, which is only 200 feet.

In the debate Tuesday night, several members of the public testified that decreasing the distance could endanger children. Debbie Cary, the co-owner of Inlet View Bar and Restaurant in Ninilchik, asked the assembly to at least maintain the 500 feet if not increase the distance to 1,000 feet.

“I would urge you not to change this ordinance,” Cary said. “Please do not reduce the proximity.”

Cary, who has repeatedly opposed the issuance of Clark’s license, also testified in front of the borough Planning Commission against the ordinance.

When asked, she said her own bar was approximately 585 feet from the nearest church or school.

Brian Olson, who owns the winery Alaska Berries in the K-Beach area, said no matter each individual’s personal opinion on alcohol, they should treat it fairly from a business perspective.

“When it comes to any person’s personal opinions about alcohol, that’s just it — that’s a person’s opinion,” Olson said. “It’s a legal commodity sold in this country and this state, and there are folks such as myself that are business people in this industry.”

The assembly members debated the merit of the distance in the borough as compared to the state.

Assembly member Gary Knopp proposed amending the ordinance to maintain the 500 feet for schools but reduce it to 300 feet for churches, complying with the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s position for schools.

Multiple assembly members called this “spot legislation,” designed specifically to accommodate the license in Ninilchik. Knopp said he did not see it as spot legislation but rather that it makes it easier for businesses borough-wide.

Other assembly members objected because they felt setting different distance requirements for different establishments made it more complicated for business owners, defeating the purpose of the ordinance in the first place.

Knopp’s amendment failed to pass.

Every assembly member, including assembly president Blaine Gilman, weighed in with a perspective. Some said they viewed it from a business perspective; others viewed it from a perspective of wanting to protect children.

Assembly member Brent Johnson said he would not support any changes to the current distance.

“With what little ability I have to influence the borough — I’m the guy who said that I hated alcohol — I can’t think of any benefit to children that reducing that distance would (have),” Johnson said.

Assembly member Willy Dunne said he had been to villages that banned alcohol completely and still saw issues with alcoholism and domestic violence.

He said he appreciated the testimony both from the public and the borough but that he didn’t see how reducing the distance from 500 to 300 feet would affect alcoholism rates.

“I highly doubt that the Kenai borough has a lower rate of alcohol abuse or addiction or fetal alcohol syndrome or domestic violence because we currently have a 500-foot distance between a school or a liquor store,” Dunne said.

After discussion, Bagley amended the ordinance to leave the setback at 500 feet but change the way it is measured to the same way the state measures, by pedestrian route from door to door.

“I don’t know if it’s longer or shorter, I don’t care,” Bagley said. “I just want it to be the same as what the state statutes are. I’d like it to be 200 feet too, but I didn’t think that was going to happen … Using the same language as what the state is using can really help (business owners) out, especially people who deal with this on a regular basis.”

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

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