Two teenagers, eight community members and a lawyer turned out for the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly’s heated discussion of the alcohol setback rule Tuesday night.
The assembly is considering amending the borough code’s requirement for any establishment with a liquor license to be set back 500 feet from any church or school. The state requirement is 200 feet, and assembly member Dale Bagley introduced the ordinance at the assembly’s Nov. 10 meeting to reduce the borough’s setback to 300 feet.
The fight has been brewing since September, when the borough assembly heard from a business owner in Ninilchik who wanted to purchase a license to sell package liquor from the Ninilchik General Store on the Sterling Highway. The owner, James Clark, also owns Echo Lake Superior Meat & Processing in Soldotna.
The Ninilchik General Store’s property line is less than 500 feet from two churches and the Ninilchik School. Though Clark obtained non-objection letters from the Ninilchik School and from one of the churches, the other church objected, and the borough assembly denied the license. Changing the rule would allow his store to operate legally.
The owners of a nearby bar, the Inlet View Bar & Grill in Ninilchik, have repeatedly objected to changing the law. Debbie Cary, one of the owners, testified at both at the November meeting at the meeting Tuesday, saying her main concern was additional access for youth in the community.
“Alcohol’s a real problem among teens and among Natives,” Cary said. “It was my intent to enlighten the assembly to the problems that could occur with more lenient laws.”
Sabrina Ferguson, 15, the daughter of the bar’s other owner, Bob Ferguson, also testified that increasing youth access could promote alcoholism and domestic violence. Several other members of the community sent in letters objecting to another liquor establishment in Ninilchik when there is already a bar and another liquor store, Twin Rivers Liquor.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District also sent in a letter of opposition to the proposed ordinance, saying that “while it is difficult to objectively identify a difference between a 300 foot requirement and a 500 foot requirement in terms of student outcomes, it is also difficult to suggest that it is ‘better for kids’ to have liquor establishments closer to schools.”
Multiple people also spoke in favor of the license, including the 17-year-old daughter of assembly member Brandi Holmdahl, Hannalyn Ohlsen. Greg Encelewski, the current president of the Ninilchik Traditional Council — which wrote a support letter for Clark when he originally applied for the license — said the store’s expansion could bring more economic development to the area.
Encelewski also accused the Inlet View’s owners of attempting to stifle competition in the area. He cited an incident in October when a bartender at the Inlet View was found to have served alcohol to a minor. The incident occurred on Oct. 9 and a bartender served alcohol to a 20-year-old woman.
“Three hundred feet protects both churches and schools,” Encelewski said. “The assembly decision should be based, I believe, on what is in the best interest of the community, not on a business competitor’s (interest) or some people’s position on alcohol.”
Caitie Rowe, a Ninilchik resident who said she has worked for both the Inlet View and the General Store, said people sometimes choose not to stop and camp in Ninilchik because the store does not sell packaged liquor. The access for minors is based on the ethics of the store owner, not necessarily on the availability, so the distance from schools and churches does not matter, she said.
“I wish that even a tiny portion of the energy my neighbors have spent opposing this would be spent on helping those youth or put into some program somewhere, because it seems like a lot of energy that hasn’t been given to anything,” Rowe said.
The borough assembly chose to postpone the vote on the recommendation of Clark’s lawyer, Dan Coffey, an Anchorage-based liquor industry attorney. Coffey said he had set up a meeting with the school board in January to discuss the ordinance with them, and the assembly voted to take up the ordinance again at its February meeting.
Several assembly members said they opposed revising the rule. Assembly member Kelly Cooper said she preferred to keep the setback at 500 feet because children may be unattended 200 feet from liquor establishments and could possibly be hit by drunk drivers. She said it was odd that the school board would offer that invitation to Coffey and the Clarks while sending an objection letter to the assembly.
Assembly member Brent Johnson said the current numbers assigned to setback distances are arbitrary and should have logic behind them. He referred to the drug-free zones that surround schools, which have a setback of 500 feet in Alaska. In those zones, possessing any federally illegal drugs is elevated from a misdemeanor to a felony. However, this does not apply to alcohol.
“I’d like to note that the 200 feet is just as arbitrary as the 500 feet — the state doesn’t have a reason for it to be 200 feet,” Johnson said. “If you are going to have a separation that is statewide, the separation may as well be a distance that means something. Two hundred feet means almost nothing. There is almost no place in this borough where you can go 200 feet from a school or church and be in a bar, especially on the sidewalk.”
Assembly members batted the question back and forth about whether the distance prevented additional access. Member Gary Knopp favored allowing the license because he said it would promote business and streamline the licensing process. Member Stan Welles said he strongly opposed it because it provided more access for youth.
Currently, all the alcohol licenses in the borough are spoken for. Even if Clark begins selling alcohol at the Ninilchik General Store, no other stores will be able to open unless the borough’s population increases, as Alaska’s rule is one liquor license per 3,000 residents. Coffey said the Clarks had taken a poll in Ninilchik and received 85 favorable responses, and that he wanted the chance to work with the community to find a solution.
“There’s substantial support for this license in Ninilchik,” Coffey said. “But as Ms. Cary said, this is a borough-wide issue… how do you make sure that what you do is in the best interest of all the borough? I know that’s what you want to do… there’s some work that needs to be done on this particular ordinance.”
The assembly will take up the debate again at its Feb. 2 meeting.
Reach Elizabeth Earl at firstname.lastname@example.org.