Kenai Council may trim proposed marijuana setbacks

Setbacks for commercial marijuana establishments may become more tightly regulated in Kenai than they are at the state level.

Alaska’s regulations for commercial marijuana require establishments to be be 500 feet away from schools, youth centers, churches and correctional facilities. In Kenai, a proposal from the Planning and Zoning Commission would add setback requirements for seven additional facility types and would create a system of measuring setbacks. The Kenai City Council may reduce this list when its members debate and vote on the proposal.

During a Dec. 17 work session on marijuana, council member Mike Boyle favored accepting the state regulations without additional restrictions. Other council members did not take explicit general positions, but in a discussion of the seven additional setbacks, most recommended reducing or removing them when a final marijuana bill comes before council.

The planning and zoning commission proposal would allow state-licensed commercial marijuana establishments in certain zones of Kenai with conditional use permits from the commission, subject to 500-foot setbacks from day cares, swimming pools, substance abuse treatment centers, hospitals, public housing facilities with child residents, playgrounds and parks, which are defined separately in the proposal, in addition to the state’s setbacks.

The Kenai proposal would also measure its setbacks differently from the state. In state regulations, the setback distance is measured from the customer entrance of the marijuana establishment to the neighboring property line. Under the planning and zoning commission proposal, the distances would be measured from property line to property line.

Council member Tim Navarre mentioned that using these setbacks, the Kenai Arby’s — part of a franchise owned by his family, which sits at the busy intersection of the Kenai Spur Highway and Bridge Access Road — is in a permissible area, while less-exposed bars in Old Town Kenai are not. Using this example, Navarre questioned whether the zoning requirements and setbacks would be effective in their goal of making marijuana less accessible to children or whether they would merely stifle developing businesses.

“How much more confining does it make our whole business district of Kenai?” Navarre said. “In other words, if you added all of those setbacks, what would it look like on the map, and if you took different ones out, does it open or does it block essentially our whole town? You might as well just ban it and be done with it.”

The planning and zoning commission proposal would allow marijuana in three zones: light and heavy industrial, and limited commercial. It would be barred from the other commercial zones — central and general commercial and central mixed use, located in the center of town. The only land zoned limited commercial is located on a strip of parcels bordering the Kenai Spur Highway to the east of the east entrance to Beaver Loop Road. According to information provided by Kenai City Planner Matt Kelley, retail marijuana establishments would be permitted on 213 Kenai parcels, or 4 percent of Kenai land by parcel.

Another proposed setback wasn’t included in either the state or draft city regulations, but recommended by Kenai City Attorney Scott Bloom, who suggested that Kenai’s final marijuana regulations increase the state-created buffer zone around schools from 500 feet to 1000 feet. He said this recommendation was based on his reading of the federal Safe Schools Act and of the Cole memo, a 2013 Department of Justice memo by then-Deputy Attorney General James Cole outlining federal government policy toward states that had legalized marijuana. The memo’s list of conditions includes that states where marijuana has been legalized should prevent “the distribution of marijuana to minors.” “Alaska is the only state that has a 500-foot buffer and not a 1000 foot buffer (from schools),” Bloom said. “Colorado, Washington, both have 1000-foot buffers.”

Council member Henry Knackstedt asked Bloom what consequences Kenai could face from the federal government with a less than 500-foot school setback.

“No idea,” Bloom said. “And the next election could swing things 180 (degrees) in either direction.”

After the work session, Bloom said the planning and zoning commission proposal will be presented at a future city council meeting as the commission wrote it, and it would be up to individual council members to amend it before the vote.


Reach Ben Boettger at

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