When Lou Weaver picked out a property on Tudor Road for a future pot retail shop, he thought it was a safe distance from a nearby church.
His measurement found the walking distance exceeded the required separation distance between pot shops and protected areas.
Then this spring, after paying tens of thousands of dollars of rent on the property, Weaver got a shock. City planners told him the property was too close to the church and wouldn't qualify.
In making his measurements, Weaver didn't realize that city and state law treat every intersection as a crosswalk, regardless of whether there's a "walk" signal or painted pedestrian lines. That can make a big difference in measuring a person's walking path.
"Growing up, a crosswalk had white lines," said Weaver, who owns a company called AK Slow Burn. "The idea that every single intersection (could be a crosswalk) … that had me floored."
In Anchorage's ongoing regulatory battles over the nascent marijuana industry, one of the sticking points is the method of measuring the minimum 500-foot separation between pot shops and schools, churches and other protected areas.
Now the sparring is coming down to crosswalks — and prospective business owners like Weaver are suddenly talking about road safety and turning into indirect advocates for stricter jaywalking laws.
Weaver said he had assumed that a person would use a marked crosswalk at the intersection of Tudor Road and Brayton Drive to get from his property to a Seventh-day Adventist Church across the street.
"We don't want a marijuana establishment … across from a school, across from a day care, even across from a church," said Weaver, who's since moved to a property closer to downtown. "But make it something that's safe and functional for people's well-being."
In February, the Anchorage Assembly decided the distance between a pot shop and a school or a church should be measured not by a straight line but by "practicable pedestrian route," except in Chugiak-Eagle River. The idea was to help open up a tight real estate market.
But at a meeting of the Anchorage Assembly's land-use committee on Sept. 21, city planners, Assembly members, and pot business owners, lawyers and industry advocates gathered around a table and wondered aloud: What does that mean?
The safest route? The route people will actually use? Or the legal route?
City officials aren't sure. Two Assembly members are meeting with city planners and traffic engineers to try to clarify the ambiguity in the law.
There's little precedent for it elsewhere in city law — state law refers simply to "shortest pedestrian route" in measuring 200 feet between bars and a school, for example, and the 1000 feet required between a school and adult-oriented establishments is measured "as the crow flies."
Meanwhile, investors, real estate brokers and lawyers in the city's marijuana industry are pushing for a measurement method that would favor them. They want the city to assume, in measuring distances, that people will be crossing at crosswalks, even if that's tougher than state traffic law as well as typical pedestrian behavior.
At the Sept. 21 meeting in the city's permitting building, Erika McConnell, who works in the city's Office of Economic and Community Development, started off the session by explaining the traffic law.
In Anchorage, a legal crosswalk exists at any intersection, regardless of whether there's a traffic signal and white or yellow striped lines, she said.
Down the table from McConnell, commercial real estate broker Hugh Wade wasn't happy. Wade started building his own database months ago to try to track eligible properties amid shifting city and state regulations.
A few weeks earlier, Wade had emailed a letter to John Weddleton, the chair of the Assembly's committee on land use, complaining about the legal interpretation.
Wade described his client Weaver's problem on Tudor Road. He also noted a similar situation involving a warehouse on Potter Drive, between C Street and Arctic Boulevard.
The Potter Drive warehouse could be used for a small legal grow operation, Wade said, but it depended on how walking distance was measured between the property and the nearby Alaska Gymnastics Association, a licensed day care.
Walking to the marked crosswalk would more than double the distance between two points, he said.
"My premise is that the muni has frustratingly decided that practicable pedestrian route means that people can and should cross major roads outside of marked crosswalks, which in turn means that buildings are not eligible for marijuana businesses," Wade wrote to Weddleton.
At the Assembly committee meeting, city traffic engineer Stephanie Mormilo told Wade that it's not reasonable to expect that people will cross only at marked intersections with a traffic signal, particularly in bad weather.
The exception is downtown Anchorage, Mormilo said. City law requires people to cross at a traffic signals in the downtown business district.
But signals are located every few hundred feet on major streets downtown, making it far more pedestrian-friendly than elsewhere in the city, Mormilo said. She noted that in Midtown Anchorage, a prime area for pot real estate, signals range from a quarter-mile to a half-mile apart.
Mormilo noted that marked crosswalks at traffic signals are statistically the most dangerous for pedestrians — drivers and walkers tend to be on automatic and less alert.
"I know this is about measurement," Mormilo said. "I don't care one way or another how it gets measured. I think we should have consistency … but (we're) looking realistically at what pedestrians are doing on a daily basis."
Trying to sort out pot shop locations and distances from schools and protected areas is a headache for other reasons, city officials said. Planning manager Terry Schoenthal said his staff is already spending "a great deal of time and effort" just on figuring out what buildings qualify as protected.
Schoenthal said there have been a number of times where the city and the pot business applicant have arrived at different numbers with measurements. He said collector roads are particularly ambiguous as far as it being easy to get across at almost any intersection.
Wade said he and his clients want predictability.
"Predictability, but without risk to people crossing roads with 39,000 cars a day," Weaver said, sitting behind Wade at the meeting.
Assemblyman Patrick Flynn, who represents downtown and also owns a small interest in a marijuana startup, attended the meeting. Flynn recalled that the reason for making measurements based on walking distance was to allow the industry to gain a foothold and stifle the growth of the black market.
Flynn suggested the Assembly create, for the purposes of measurement, a "reasonable expectation" of where roads can be crossed. He said the city should consider making a distinction between major arterials with more lanes and higher speed limits.
Any future legislation to address the issue will only deal with the part of city law that refers to the measurement between a pot shop and a protected area.
It won't change where it's legal to cross the street in Anchorage, McConnell said. Flynn said that would be a "broader discussion for a different day," though Mormilo, the traffic engineer, said past rewrites of city traffic law have never found support for requiring people to cross only at marked crosswalks.
In the meantime, McConnell said, business owners should come talk to the city first before investing in a particular property.