Soldotna council directs administration to draft pot ban legislation

After taking about two years to think it over, the Soldotna City Council has decided commercial marijuana still isn’t right for the city.

The council voted 4-2 at its Wednesday meeting to direct city administrators to draft legislation that would ban marijuana establishments from operating within city limits. This move comes as Soldotna’s two-year moratorium on cannabis businesses, which the council voted to enact in December 2015, draws closer to its expiration date.

The moratorium will end Jan. 1, 2018, and administrators want enough time to prepare for either allowing marijuana business in the city or banning it, said Mayor Pete Sprague during the meeting.

“If the council does decide to take some action, we do need to draft legislation, present it to (the) Planning and Zoning (Commission), have it go through the public process,” Sprague said.

Council member Tim Cashman made a motion to direct the administration to draft legislation banning marijuana, which the council then passed after some discussion. Council members Lisa Parker and Tyson Cox voted against the motion.

“I’m certainly not trying to control people’s lives or what they choose to do,” Cashman said. “I just think Soldotna is pretty much, you know, a postage stamp, very small community.”

Cashman said he feels there are already enough issues going on in Soldotna, like trying to keep the budget balanced and anticipating the outcome of the sweeping state alcohol rewrite moving through the Legislature, and that regulating marijuana doesn’t need to be added to the pile.

“I don’t think that this town really needs it,” he said. “I look at a couple of vacant buildings in town and … I drive by and … I would hate to see a sign that said, you know, ‘Get High at the Y.’ … I just don’t think that’s necessarily what Soldotna needs to be.”

Cashman said he’ll be representing the people in town who don’t want commercial marijuana within city limits, but that he is sure “there are people that do, and I can certainly respect their opinions to want that.”

Council members Paul Whitney, Linda Murphy and Regina Daniels all cited the relative ease with which residents can already get cannabis products just outside city limits and throughout the Kenai Peninsula Borough.

“It’s not like we would be denying anybody the ability to purchase marijuana anywhere here in the local area,” Whitney said. “We have one … right outside the city limits, another one halfway between here and Kenai. … It’s available. If anybody wants to go outside the city limits and buy it, it’s available there, and there’s plenty of cultivation places around here to supply them.”

Borough residents will vote in the Oct. 6 regular election whether to ban commercial marijuana in the borough outside of cities. A citizen petition to bring the question to voters got the signatures it needed and was validated in August 2016 but missed the deadline for the October 2016 ballot, and no one on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly has moved to hold a special election just for the proposition.

Should borough voters choose to ban marijuana outside city limits, Kenai would be the only city on the central peninsula with operating cannabis businesses. Whitney, who provided a second for Cashman’s motion, said after the meeting that such a scenario would not change his opinion on whether commercial marijuana should be allowed in Soldotna.

Murphy also pointed to economics during her comments on the motion, saying they don’t add up to making marijuana a viable business in Soldotna.

“If people want to indulge in marijuana, that’s their right to do that under the state law. I’m not speaking against that,” Murphy said. “But I think … we are a very small footprint. We have a limited population here. … I don’t think this is the panacea that some people are looking at to bring a lot of additional revenue to the city through whatever taxes we might impose on marijuana sales. I think that the cost of regulating and enforcing whatever ordinance we might put forward to allow sales would at least equal the amount of money we might make from those sales.”

Parker brought up the question of Soldotna’s ongoing efforts to look into annexing areas bordering the city. She asked what would happen to a marijuana business should the city ever annex an area including it.

City Manager Mark Dixson said Soldotna’s attorney advised administrators that “if there was an existing business that we annexed, that business would have to cease operation.” Council members and Sprague said they would want to avoid that outcome.

Dixson said any potential annexation will be addressed much farther into the future than the marijuana question. He said avoiding a situation in which a marijuana business had to cease operation could be achieved by either avoiding those businesses during any potential annexation, or making an amendment to city code down the line that would allow such businesses to be grandfathered in.

Reach Megan Pacer at megan.pacer@peninsulaclarion.com.

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