After hashing out many concerns surrounding an ordinance to allow onsite marijuana consumption at cultivation, manufacturing, testing and retail facilities, the Homer City Council voted 2-3 in opposition of the ordinance at Monday night’s regular meeting.
Ordinance 21-41 was originally brought to the city council by the Planning Commission at the June 28 meeting after a local marijuana retail business owner expressed interest in applying for a consumption endorsement; however, the planning commission chose not to recommend the adoption of the ordinance. No city council member chose to sponsor the ordinance, inevitably decreasing its chances of being passed.
“We are in the infancy of the legalization of marijuana,” council member Heath Smith said. “To think that the community has to be at the front end of the learning curve in opening up these kinds of establishments, I don’t think that necessarily shows a lot of responsibility on our side.”
Smith stated the lack of historical social impact data on open consumption makes the trial outcomes hazy as to whether it would be good for the community or not. Additionally, the absence of community support except for the businesses wanting to establish the endorsement was cause for concern.
In 2015, Alaska voters approved an initiative that legalized recreational use of cannabis for people ages 21 and older in private residences and sale of cannabis from state-licensed dispensaries in 2015. Adults can possess up to an ounce of cannabis and cultivate six plants, according to Alaska Measure 2, the ballot measure successfully legalizing marijuana.
In March 2016, Homer passed Ordinance 16-04(A-2)(S-3) amending city codes to allow cultivation, manufacturing, testing and retail facilities to open and established zoning for allowed areas. There are currently four state-licensed cannabis retail facilities in the Homer area, with two in city limits.
While public consumption of marijuana is still illegal with fines up to $100, the Alaska Marijuana Control Board filed regulations allowing on-site consumption in Alaska retail cannabis stores in 2018, but left the decision to allow on-site consumption to the individual cities. Only three communities in Alaska have retail cannabis businesses with on-site consumption endorsements, including Fairbanks, Juneau and Ketchikan. On-site consumption in Homer remains illegal.
Cosmic Cannabis owners Chris Logan and Chris Long spoke in favor of the ordinance during the public hearing portion of the regular meeting. Cosmic Cannabis opened in 2020 and is located on Bunnell Avenue near Bishop’s Beach.
Long reviewed state marijuana regulations for the council and explained Cosmic Cannabis’s plan to adhere to the state standard if the ordinance passed. Ultimately, the owners shared they just want a legal space for customers to consume their products.
“Our place of business would like to provide a legal place for tourists and residents to consume marijuana, which is legal,” she said. “Our goals are to provide a safe and legal place for tourists to consume cannabis, to generate tax revenue and to provide jobs for the local economy.”
A consumption endorsement is considered an expansion of the retail business and requires more regulation concerning amount of products served, consideration of surrounding businesses if smoking outdoors and additional security measures. In order for local marijuana businesses to get a consumption endorsement, they must operate a state approved retail marijuana business.
By relying on state regulations and standards, City Planner Rick Abboud said the current cannabis stores have been compliant with city codes and pleasant to work with. However, because the community has not provided support for the ordinance, he could not endorse it.
“I have had positive experiences working with the retail locations in Homer and have not experienced operative complaints, especially after a facility has been in operation,” wrote Abboud in a staff report to the council. “I did note that I thought it was something that was well-regulated by the state and that if it was something found to be in the sensibilities of the citizens of Homer, I would not object.”
Additionally, Homer Police Cheif Mark Robl said allowing open consumption of marijuana could potentially endanger a police officer responding to an emergency onsite because of the risk of secondhand smoke.
“It’s definitely a concern because if an officer comes into contact with any kind of secondhand smoke, I think our duty would be to send him home,” Robl said. “… It could be very hard to avoid exposure in some of these environments.”
With the risk levels unknown to the community, including public areas such as Bishop’s Beach and public departments such as the police and fire departments, Council members Rachel Lord, Caroline Venuti and Smith voted in opposition of the ordinance.
“I will not be supporting this just based on the lack of champions from the planning commission,” Lord said. “… We got pretty unanimous ‘no’s’ from the planning commission, so it’s hard for me to override that without a positive sponsor advocating for this from the city.”
Council members Donna Aderhold and Storm Hansen-Cavasos, however, voted in favor of the endorsement, stating the regulations were solid and the business owners had good intentions.
“There is a pretty strict state standard. All indications are that marijuana businesses in this town have been following standards, have been really easy for city planning and the city police department to work with,” Aderhold said. She added that she recognizes the concerns for secondhand smoke and would like to see a future ordinance outlawing smoking marijuana indoors and outdoors.
Ultimately, the ordinance failed 2-3.
Another heavily discussed topic of the meeting was the Bunnell Avenue/Charles Way Water and Sewer Special Assessment District. The city is planning to extend the water and sewer line to the Bunnell Avenue/Charles Way neighborhood, including Bishop’s Beach; however, the city received enough pushback from property owners living in that area to reevaluate their plans going forward.
The council on May 10, 2021, passed Resolution 21-030 to initiate the process of bringing water and sewer lines to the area, but postponed the project after public works met with property owners who had concerns on May 27.
“What we learned in the neighborhood meeting is that there is a strong interest in the project by some people, but some people objected to it for a variety of reasons,” Public Works Director Jan Kaiser said.
During the May 27 meeting, property owners said Bishop’s Beach Park would be the main benefactor from the water and sewer line extension, so the city’s assessment share should be reflective of that instead of splitting the cost equally between property owners and the city. Additionally, many properties also have “spaghetti lines” or extensions from the main water and sewer line that were installed more than 10 years ago and would not benefit from the proposed extension.
On Monday night, the council was met with two opposing resolutions: 21-056, which assigns cost shares equally by property lot, and 21-057, which assigns cost shared by benefited property as recommended by Kaiser.
The resolutions have received objections and comments from the public; however because of city codes, public works is unable to revise their recommendations until after the public comment period has ended. The public comment period for the Bunnell Avenue/Charles Way Water and Sewer Special Assessment District is open through Aug. 19.
Ruben Guetschow, a owner of a dry cabin on Bunnell Avenue, spoke at Monday night’s meeting in support of Resolution 21-057 because of the benefit adjustments it allows for smaller properties compared to larger lots owned by the city.
“The benefited area methodology is appropriate for this district because of the great disparity of size and use of the lots,” Guetschow said. “At one extreme is the large lot possessed by the city, and at the other are the small lots and humble ambitions of property owners such as myself.”
Logan, the original petitioner for the special assessment and owner of three properties in the district, also spoke about her struggles with pre-existing holding tanks on her property and the current dangers of sewer drainage polluting Beluga Slough protected wetlands nearby. Logan supported Resolution 21-057 as well.
“Since it is 2021 and we are inside Homer city limits, I think it’s time to provide these basic services,” Logan said. “I’m a proponent of the project by whatever means necessary, but I would advocate for the benefited share assessment.”
Kaiser presented public works’ recommendations to the council to oppose 21-056 and postpone 21-057 until after the comment period so public works can confront the objects posed by community members and revise the boundary for the district and the assessment methodology for consideration at the Aug. 23 meeting.
After much discussion, the council followed Kaiser’s recommendation and failed Resolution 21-56 and postponed Resolution 21-57 until after the public comment period ended.
The next city council meeting will be held Aug. 23 in the City Hall Cowles Council Chambers.
For more information about the meeting, visit www.cityofhomer-ak.gov/citycouncil/city-council-regular-meeting-247.
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