Marijuana industry criticizes city zoning

By DJ Summers in Alaska Journal of Commerce

State cannabis regulations might be finalized, but Anchorage rules are just heating up.

The Anchorage Planning and Zoning Commission, which passes zoning recommendations to the Anchorage Assembly, wants to tone down a set of municipal land use rules that make state regulations look laidback in comparison.

The Alaska Marijuana Control Board finalized state regulations Dec. 1, but Ballot 2 specified local controls; cannabis businesses in the Anchorage municipality will have to go through a municipal licensing process as well, including an additional operator’s license and a conditional use permit.

Proposed zoning rules expand the buffer zones cannabis businesses must follow and assign several license types to scarce and expensive industrial zoning, as well as require community outreach plans for businesses.

The commission has a deadline recommend a finalized package to the Anchorage Assembly by Jan. 4, 2016. It plans to make several changes before that date, as commissioners largely agreed with various industry criticisms.

Fresh off the state package, Alaska Marijuana Control Board chairman Bruce Schulte told the commission the proposed plan treats marijuana businesses unfairly.

“The proposed zoning regulations could best be defined as hostile to the industry,” Schulte told the commission. “If it is the intent of the municipality is to ban all things marijuana in Anchorage, fine, let’s do that. Let’s not use the zoning process as a backhanded way of doing that.”

Erika McConnell, the zoning and planning manager for the municipality, said the Assembly’s staff would rather err on the side of too restrictive than too relaxed.

“We have tried to take a conservative approach,” McConnell said. “We’ve taken a conservative approach to see how things go, and then relax the standards later when we see there’s no problem.”

Schulte was one of handful of industry stakeholders present who’d been heavily involved with state regulations, either as public commentators or as public officials, who showed up to argue similar points they’d brought up at Marijuana Control Board meetings. Overburdening the industry, some said, could bring in an industry-led lawsuit against Anchorage.

“Ballot Measure 2 delegated specific rights to local government but it also stipulated that rules, taxes, and fees could not be so burdensome as to make the lawful industry unfeasible,” said Kim Kole of the Coalition for Responsible Cannabis Legislation. “That could very well leave the municipality of Anchorage open to legal challenge.”

500 feet from parks

According to ordinance, business would not be welcome within 500 feet of Anchorage’s 223 parks, encompassing over 10,000 acres of municipal land in total. State rules only order marijuana businesses be kept 500 feet from child-centric establishments, halving the federal Drug Free Zone standard.

“You all know how many parks there are in town,” said Kole. “Once you put 500 feet around all of these additional municipal locations, businesses will essentially be zoned out of existence.”

Marijuana business attorney Jana Weltzin said Anchorage’s limited land doesn’t allow for such restrictions as it might in other states like expansive Arizona, where Weltzin formerly represented marijuana business interests.

“You should look at the state’s buffer zone list and just adopt those,” said Weltzin. “The topography of our land and the way we’re set up just doesn’t allow for us to sprawl out like other cities.” READ MORE