Borough’s marijuana task force postpones regulations decision

Comments and discussion stretched late into the night at the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s first Marijuana Task Force meeting after the statewide marijuana regulations came out.

The task force received comments for hours from members of the public, all urging them to stay as close to the state regulations as possible to foster a growing industry. After deliberation, the task force postponed a decision about any local regulations until its meeting after the new year.

Task force member Dollynda Phelps proposed to postpone the discussion of permits and limitations proposed by Amy Fenske, who recently resigned from the task force. Phelps introduced a motion to do nothing additional in the borough and simply stick to the state regulations.

Task force member Paul Ostrander supported postponing talk of some restrictions to allow for further discussion.

“I do think the … one role we potentially have here as a borough is time, place and manner restrictions,” Ostrander said. “Although I don’t think I would personally want to see adopted exactly what (Fenske) has proposed, I do think it gives us a good spot to at least start talking about it and discussing it.”

Fenske’s proposed regulations include a 1,000-foot setback for marijuana businesses from churches, schools, playgrounds, prisons or hospitals — double the state’s 500-foot requirement; a conditional land use permit for any marijuana establishment; no smell detectable from outside the building; a 500-foot setback from four or more homes and bus stops; and that they be closed between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., among other restrictions.

Every person who testified said that the proposed regulations were too strict. The task force voted to remove Fenske’s proposal from the agenda before public comments began, but each person still commented on them. Several members of the task force reminded commenters that the proposal was not on the agenda.

Brian Olson, who owns Soldotna winery Alaska Berries, opened the public comments by condemning Fenske’s proposed regulations.

“I have to tell you, I was shocked, I was stunned when I read that,” Olson said. “What Ms. Fenske proposed is beyond belief. It was to the point of throwing a whole monkey wrench in the works.”

There was applause as Olson concluded by saying that he supported Phelps’s proposal to stick to the state regulations, which he said he considered restrictive but workable. Task force chair Leif Abel requested that the audience not applaud for the remainder of the meeting because of the location in the borough assembly chambers.

John Cox of Anchor Point said he opposed the 1,000-foot setback proposed in Fenske’s regulations. A business owner, he said the setbacks violate the separation of church and state by controlling what businesses can operate near a church. He said the state regulations were too strict and could cause the state to lose money by driving portions of the marijuana business back underground.

“What the panel has taken into consideration is in direct conflict of the laws,” Cox said. “The recommendation now permits the churches to extend their rights beyond their boundaries onto private property and private businesses.”

Michelle Holley of Soldotna said the marijuana legalization could foster a tourism industry in Alaska similar to the ones in Washington and Colorado. Other countries are moving forward on legalization as well, and the U.S. should follow suit, she said.

“People are flocking to Washington and Colorado and anywhere they can consume legally,” Holly said. “They will be consuming cannabis, and they can either do it legally or go down to the park and get it from the drug dealers. So I say we move forward and do it quickly.”

The task force was divided on Phelps’s proposal. Member Blaine Gilman, who supported considering her motion, said he still thought local regulations were necessary. He said he preferred a local regulation that allows other residents to weigh in on whether they want the marijuana businesses in their neighborhoods.

“I think that neighborhoods have a right if they don’t want these commercial activities in their neighborhoods. They should be able to say no,” Gilman said. “There should be some sort of mechanism so people get to say, ‘This is what we want in our neighborhood.’”

Task force member Marc Theiler said it was too late in the process to begin considering local regulations. He called the local regulations in other communities “nickel and dime tactics” to make it more difficult for businesses to open.

Theiler supported Kenai’s zoning recommendations, saying they were making positive steps. He spoke against Soldotna’s two-year moratorium on marijuana businesses, calling it poorly planned.

“As a business owner, there’s so much uncertainty, and now adding an extra layer of this conditional use with less than 90 days to submit our applications becomes pretty crazy and very shortsighted,” Theiler said. “It’s done from the same subjective, horrible ideology that we are seemingly battling on so many different issues.”

Elizabeth Earl is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion. She can be reached at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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