Citizens initiative may ask question: Should commercial pot be banned?

After three ordinances and four Homer City Council meetings, the council on Monday wrapped up its work on whether commercial cannabis activities should be allowed in the city. 

In a unanimous decision, it approved on reconsideration an ordinance regulating by zoning district the cultivation, manufacturing, testing and sale of marijuana. 

In a 4-1 vote, the council also defeated an ordinance putting to voters the question: Should the city should ban commercial cannabis?

However, the debate on a ban isn’t over. A citizen group on March 3 filed an application with the city clerk’s office to start a petition to ban by a local-option vote commercial cannabis. That application is now being considered by the clerk’s office.

Since its Jan. 25 meeting, the council has taken these actions on ordinances affecting commercial cannabis in Homer city limits:

• On Monday, the council defeated Ordinance 16-07(A), an act that would have put to the citizens the question on whether to ban commercial cannabis activities in Homer. The voter initiative seeks to ask the same question of the people, except putting it on the ballot would be done by the initiative process.

• Also on Monday, the council reconsidered, amended and passed Ordinance 16-04(A)(S-3), a revision of city zoning regulations that would regulate commercial cannabis by zoning district.

• At the Feb. 22 meeting, Ordinance 16-06, introduced by council members Heath Smith and Gus VanDyke, died for lack of a second. That would have banned by council action commercial cannabis in Homer.

With the passage of the new zoning regulations, potential cannabis businesses can now apply for licenses with the Alaska Marijuana Control Board. The city could see an immediate though modest economic benefit, with $500 of a $1,000 state license application fee going to the city.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough allows commercial cannabis in areas that aren’t part of cities. Two marijuana cultivation facilities in the Homer area, Talisman Farms on Crossman Ridge Road and Baycrest Farm on Green Timbers Road, have filed applications with the Marijuana Control Board.

In arguing against Ordinance 16-07(A), the act to hold a vote, council member David Lewis said the people had already voted for commercial cannabis when Homer voting districts in 2014 passed by 53 percent Ballot Measure 2, the citizen initiative legalizing personal, medicinal and commercial use of cannabis.

“This has gone on way too long. We had the vote,” Lewis said. “I’m going to vote ‘no’ on holding a special election. Let’s just move on.”

Homer Mayor Beth Wythe introduced 16-07(A). Under the local option provisions of state marijuana regulations and Ballot Measure 2, a vote can be put forth either by a governmental body or through the citizen initiative process. Wythe argued that by passing Ballot Measure 2, voters also supported the idea of a local option. 

Though it passed 4-3 on introduction at the Feb. 22 meeting, with Wythe breaking a tie council vote, on Monday only council member Gus VanDyke voted to support Wythe’s ordinance. Council members Donna Aderhold, David Lewis, Catriona Reynolds and Bryan Zak voted no.

Council member Heath Smith attended telephonically. He is in South Africa on a hunting safari with his son and friends. Smith lost his phone connection right before Ordinance 16-07(a) came up on the agenda and could not vote.

With dozens of people testifying on the commercial cannabis issue, the last two meetings ran to 11 p.m. or later. Monday’s meeting had only seven people speak at the public hearing, with only one supporting a vote.

“Maybe this is a good idea to bring it up for election,” said Roberta Highland.

Everyone else spoke against a vote.

“In our form of republican government, it’s incumbent on you to uphold the will of the electorate,” said Lindianne Sarno, referring to the passage of Ballot Measure 2.

One of the more forceful voices came from Megan Reeves, a third-generation Homer resident. She spoke of seeing a drug addict going through detox from drug addiction.

“Marijuana is not Homer’s dirty little secret. It’s a lot worse. Instead of debating something harmless, we ought to be using that tax revenue and treating the real problem,” Reeves said. “Let’s talk about keeping meth and heroin out of our children’s hands, not something like marijuana.”

In debating her ordinance, Wythe told the council there was a petition in the works.

“It will come before the voters,” she said.

The citizens should have a chance to vote, Wythe said. 

“It doesn’t mean I don’t respect your vote,” she said. “It means the 47 percent of the people who voted against it have a right to be at this table.”

VanDyke said he supported personal and medicinal cannabis use. 

“I think this opt out clause is one of the situations where it’s one of the hardest things this council will have to deal with,” he said. “I’d rather err on the side of caution and find out what’s going on.”

After the defeat of Wythe’s ordinance, 16-07(a), the council passed on reconsideration an amended version of Ordinance 16-04, the zoning act that started the whole debate. Following the recommendations of the Homer Advisory Planning Commission, the council introduced that ordinance at its Jan. 25 meeting. It went through several incarnations that removed retail sale of pot on the Homer Spit, made commercial cannabis a permitted activity in the Central Business District, and then added and removed cultivation on lots 20,000 square feet or less in the Rural Residential zoning district. 

Officially, the council killed an amended version and introduced a substitute ordinance written by city attorney Tom Klinkner that cleared up some mistakes in the amended versions. For example, the council passed an amendment banning retail sale of pot on the Homer Spit even though the ordinance didn’t allow any commercial use in the Marine Commercial 1 zoning district. The final version also removed a clause saying the ordinance would not take effect until voters had rejected a ban — a section made moot by defeat of Wythe’s ordinance.

For the citizen initiative to start, first the city clerk would have to certify the current application and find it’s in the proper form. The application seeks to create a chapter of city code that prohibits marijuana establishments. The initiative would have to follow Title 29 of Alaska Statutes and the marijuana regulations, said Cynthia Franklin, director of the Alcohol and Marijuana Control Boards. The local option provision of those regulations specify the language and process of such a vote.

If the initiative application is approved, the sponsors would receive petition booklets. They would need signatures in the amount of 25 percent of the 1,233 voters in the last regular election, or 309 registered voters, to get the initiative on the ballot and have 90 days to collect signatures. The election could be held at a special election if the council agreed or at the next regular election on Oct. 4.

Chad Matthews, owner of several Homer tourist businesses, is the sponsor of the initiative. Tara Smith, Heath Smith’s wife, is the co-sponsor. Neither wanted to comment on the initiative.

Council member Heath Smith and a former city council candidate, Joni Wise, also have signed the application, as have two members of Homer Voice for Business, Mike Dye and Josh Garvey.

In the 2015 council election, neither Heath Smith or Wise proposed a local option vote. Both supported taxing cannabis.

“I think we should tax it. It’s here, it’s legal, let’s tax it,” Wise said at a Homer Public Library debate when asked about cannabis.

Smith expressed concerns about keeping cannabis away from children.

“Cannabis, sure, let’s make money off it, but let’s make sure our kids, we can keep it out of their hands,” Smith said at the same debate.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.

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