Soldotna OKs relaxed pot regulations

With a tie-breaking vote, Soldotna Mayor Nels Anderson gave retail marijuana businesses some wiggle room to set up shop in the small city.

The contention was over an amendment submitted by Council Member Tyson Cox, which changed the buffer zone for a city park from 500 feet to 300 feet, in an ordinance establishing regulations and enforcement. The state requires a 500-foot setback from several sensitive areas, but the decision to adopt a buffer zone from city parks was at the council’s discretion.

The amendment passed with Anderson’s vote, and the ordinance then passed unanimously. A second ordinance establishing an addition 1.5 percent sales tax was also passed.

Cox said that he proposed the amendment after speaking with Chad Ebenezer of Pine Street Cannabis Company about his experiences trying to sign a lease within the city limits of Soldotna, but outside the designated buffer zones while balancing legal, moral or financial obligations.

“I began searching for a good location in the city as soon as the decision was made to end the moratorium and, so far, I’ve been successful in finding one that meets all the successful criteria,” Ebenezer told the city council. “… Cannabis businesses are new to the state and this community, and therefore they are sometimes misunderstood and not always well received. So the challenge has been to find an available space, a willing landlord with welcoming tenants that is outside all of the buffer zones.”

The amendment passed, with Anderson’s “yes” vote, setting the city’s buffer zones for marijuana establishments as 300 feet from city parks and 500 feet from schools, public colleges, universities, state licensed day cares, recreation or youth centers, places of worship, recreational facilities, libraries and substance abuse treatment facilities, transitional housing and recovery facilities.

Each of the buffer zones are measured as the crow flies, and a location that Ebenezer has found that would accept his tenancy is 429 feet from Farnsworth Park and 440 feet from Soldotna Creek Park.

Council member Paul Whitney, who voted “no” on the amendment with council members Tim Cashman and Linda Murphy, said that although parks are separate from recreation or youth centers by state standards, he sees them as one and the same.

“Our city parks are there for outdoor games and recreation. It’s not just confined to a swingset or a slide. There’s activities that go on in that park, in any park,” he said

Council members Keith Baxter, who voted in favor of the amendment with council members Tyson Cox and Lisa Parker, pointed to a few such activities at Soldotna Creek Park where alcohol is served within the park.

“I guess a lot of people do have a double standard when it comes to inebriates,” Baxter said. “I’m not expecting any marijuana parties hosted by the chamber or Parks and Rec department at Soldotna Creek Park, but it does seem silly that we wouldn’t allow this reasonable concession for a business to operate in our city limits.”

With Anderson’s vote, though, the “reasonable concession” was allowed and the buffer zone will be 300 feet.

The first ordinance, in addition to buffer zones, also established that businesses must close from midnight to 8 a.m. and prohibited any retail cultivation within city limits.

The second ordinance includes provisions for taxation and regulations of marijuana in city limits. It levies a consumer’s sales tax of 1.5 percent on marijuana sales, for a total sales tax of 7.5 percent when combined with the city’s 3 percent and the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s 3 percent sales taxes.

Soldotna is the first municipality in the borough to levy an additional sales tax on marijuana, so the borough requested that the effective date of the tax be January 2019 to implement the changes necessary in the borough’s accounting system.

So, with the expiration of Soldotna’s marijuana moratorium on Feb. 15 and the new, more amenable regulations in place, the city is ready to welcome commercial marijuana.

With the new regulations, Ebenezer said on Thursday that he is really excited in moving forward.

“I can’t say 100 percent, but I am definitely going to pursue it,” Ebenezer said. “I couldn’t tell you if it’s going to happen for sure, but I’m hopeful.”

Reach Kat Sorensen at kat.sorensen@peninsulaclarion.com.

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