Marijuana Task Force, Planning Commission reject setback ordinance

A proposed ordinance before the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly would put more buffer distance between marijuana establishments in the borough and particular types of operations.

The ordinance, which will come up for public hearing at the May 3 assembly meeting, would change the way mandatory distances are measured between marijuana establishments and schools, churches and correctional facilities. Under current regulations, the distance will be measured by the shortest pedestrian walking route from door to door. Under the proposed changes, it will be measured in a straight line from property line to property line.

The straight-line method is a revision to the borough’s former system for measuring the mandatory distance between alcohol establishments and operations like schools, churches and playgrounds. The assembly revisited the policy in February, ultimately changing the measuring method to the shortest pedestrian walking route from door to door, the same way the state measures.

The ordinance, sponsored by assembly member Stan Welles, states in its first clause that the measure is intended to make it easier “to measure and maximize the distances” between marijuana establishments and schools, churches and correctional facilities. It also sets a 500-foot buffer for marijuana establishments around local option zoning districts. The assembly is currently discussing a rewrite of the local option zoning district code in the borough in a separate ordinance.

The Marijuana Task Force, which originally concluded its meetings in January, convened Thursday night to discuss Welles’ ordinance. After some deliberation, the task force voted not to recommend the ordinance for passage through the assembly. At its April 18 meeting, the borough Planning Commission voted unanimously not to support the ordinance either.

Task force member Dollynda Phelps, who attended the meeting my telephone, said it seemed like the ordinance was another attempt to prohibit marijuana establishments in the borough.

“We can’t just say, ‘Oh, it’s easier for the borough,’ and eliminate all these businesses because it’s easier for the borough to measure,” Phelps said. “I think the borough is very capable of measuring things and I don’t think the borough is unable to measure the shortest pedestrian route by any means.”

Task force member Ron Long, who also attended by telephone, said the 500-foot buffer was concerning and that he would not support the ordinance.

“There would be two methods now and two interpretations, so I’m not sure the simplification purpose is served,” Long said. “The 500-foot buffer, I really have some problems with that. Besides the potential for gerrymandering or basically (voting) a target property off the island, it’s kind of antithetical to basic private property rights in a lot of regards.”

The assertion that measuring property line to property line is easier for the planning department is not necessarily true, said Paul Ostrander, the vice-chair of the marijuana task force. Most of the time, the planning department can tell whether a distance is greater than 500 feet without measuring with a wheel. Also, with the changes to the alcohol mandatory distance measurements, changing it now could cause confusion for applicants. Borough Planning Director Max Best said measuring door-to-door will add slightly to the workload for the planning department, but not significantly.

Task force member Peter Mlynarik supported the ordinance, urging caution on the regulation of marijuana because it is not the same as alcohol under federal regulations, he said.

“We have to be careful with how it’s regulated based on the federal outlook on it,” Mlynarik said. “I just don’t think you can put them both in the same boat and say, ‘Everything’s the same,’ because it isn’t.”

Task force member Blaine Gilman said he supported the ordinance as well, relating it to the recent case of a liquor license issued in Ninilchik. Because of the new way that mandatory distances are measured, there is a playground less than 500 feet away from the liquor store, which Gilman said concerned him. However, the local option zone portion seemed odd because some local option zones permit other commercial activities, he said.

“I’m torn about that aspect of it, but I like the measurement aspect of it,” Gilman said.

After the ordinance failed to pass with a 7-2 vote — Gilman and Mlynarik voted to support it — several members expressed frustration with the continued amendments to marijuana regulations in the borough. Task force member Dave Nunley said the continual ordinances proposing bans or limits on activity were discouraging to entrepreneurs.

“I guess I don’t have any arguments other than … when can I start telling people that call me, yes, it’s okay to invest in the peninsula or no, it’s not okay?” Nunley said. “When do we reach that point? When are we through with this?”

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

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