In an industrial pocket of South Anchorage, the complaints poured in: A "dead skunk" smell was overpowering the area.
Businesses said the odor was saturating lobbies and cars. There were reports of headaches and gagging. Logbooks appeared that asked employees to rank how bad the odor was each day.
Anchorage's code-enforcement office investigated. They traced the smell to a commercial marijuana grow business, Danish Gardens, one of two in the immediate area. In April, the business paid a $1,800 fine for violating local odor laws, and Chris Owens, the general manager, told Anchorage Assembly members this week the business had spent tens of thousands of dollars installing air filters and other equipment.
Owens also said Danish Gardens had resolved its odor problem. But city code enforcement officers say complaints have persisted — underscoring the tricky task of smell policing in Anchorage's largest city, where dozens of marijuana shops and grows have opened since fall 2016.
In the landscape of Anchorage pot businesses, Danish Gardens is an exception, said Richard Fern, the lead land enforcement officer for the city. He said two other marijuana businesses with odor issues purchased new equipment and complaints dissipated within weeks.
"There's what, 130 marijuana places in town?" Fern said. "And we've only got a problem with two."
The other grow facility with an active odor complaint, AlaskaSense, was shut down by state regulators Thursday after the owner's marijuana handler permit was revoked. Investigators had found marijuana plants on the ground near a dumpster outside the business a few months ago.
Fern said that despite obvious efforts by Danish Gardens to fix the problem, he had received an odor complaint as recently as Wednesday. City law says a "person with a normal sense of smell" must not be able to detect marijuana at any lot line of a commercial property. Flowering marijuana plants puts off a pungent aroma that can vary from sweet to skunky, depending on the strain.
Owens told members of the Anchorage Assembly on Thursday that he disagreed there was still an odor issue. He said the business had brought in engineers and spent more than $20,000 on filter systems. He suggested the smell wasn't actually coming from his business.
He and an attorney for the business, Jana Weltzin, also complained that there wasn't an objective way to measure odor.
"What's reasonable? What's a normal nose?" Weltzin said.
Fern said he's had four sinus surgeries and smoked for several decades, so his sense of smell is "a little less than normal." If he could smell marijuana, he said, he suspected a normal nose could. But he said that's the reason officers work in teams.
Fern first started tracking odor issues at Danish Gardens about a year ago. He'd heard complaints from two nearby businesses — Axiom Armored Transport, which shares a parking lot with Danish Gardens, and Carlos Tree Service, across the street.
During a March hearing, Cindy Carlos, the owner of Carlos Tree Service, said some employees had complained about headaches. She said she was worried about workers compensation claims.
On a suggestion from code enforcement officers, Axiom started keeping a "smell log." Employees were asked to sign and document whenever they smelled marijuana and rate how strong the odor was, manager Nick Gowdie said at the hearing. Gowdie said his business had a "zero tolerance" policy for marijuana use and the company didn't want the smell associated with it.
Jamie Kiewik, a bookkeeper at Axiom, told the city he smelled marijuana daily, records show. He said it was "sometimes so overpowering that it makes people gag."
He also maintained the parking lot smelled like a "dead skunk," according to city records. He said his business had worked on its heating and air condition systems to stop the smell from coming into the building.
In the hearing, Fern and fellow officer Elaine Quiboloy-Reid recounted how they'd tracked the smell to Danish Gardens.
First, Quiboloy-Reid produced a map. She had numbered it with the locations where she and Fern smelled marijuana on specific days. They'd caught a whiff of it in the middle of Danish Gardens' northern lot line.
She'd also gathered monthly and daily climate data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, with wind speed and direction for different days.
Fern said it was his practice to make loops around the street. If he was in his vehicle, he had the windows rolled down. He also traveled on foot. Danish Gardens is in an old gravel pit surrounded by a knoll, with a lot of swirling wind, Fern said.
He "used a 'a hunter's way of determining where odor is coming from' by checking the direction of wind from looking at exhaust stacks and flags in the area and using "the old wet finger trick" to track the source of the odor upstream," according to the administrative hearing report.
Fern and Quiboloy-Reid investigated a second marijuana cultivation business, Great Northern Cannabis, which occupies a building a few hundred feet away. They determined the smell wasn't coming from there, according to the report. Fern said he and Quiboloy-Reid also investigated allegations of illegal grows in the area, but found nothing.
Speaking to Assembly members Thursday, Owens, the manager of Danish Gardens, said the building's layout complicates odor containment. There's more than 20,000 square feet of space, segmented into rooms, Owens said.
Owens said the business hired professional engineers and has spent more than $20,000 since April trying to stop scents from leaching outside. That has included installing carbon filtration panels and a stack on the roof that mixes air and ozone, Owens said.
"As long as there continues to be an argument about it, we'll continue to address it," Owens said.
Owens said he himself could not detect an odor problem. He questioned whether the smell was actually coming from his business. Weltzin, the attorney for Danish Gardens, said there should be some kind of standard for measuring smells or for determining that a business had done its best to address a problem.
Ryan Yelle, the city planner who handles marijuana land use applications, said he'd looked at other cities with legal pot, such as Seattle, Portland and Denver. None of those cities has scent-measuring equipment, Yelle said.
There is at least one invention out there: the Nasal Ranger, Yelle said. It's a megaphone-like piece of equipment held up to a person's nose, Yelle said. He said the accuracy of it was still disputed.
Fern called the situation "frustrating." He said he supports the industry and Danish Gardens is very close to getting it right. A week ago, in the rooms with flowering marijuana plants, it's no longer possible to smell marijuana because of the filters, Fern said.
But in the processing room, Fern said, the strong smell persists.