Sooner or later, anyone hoping for a permit to grow, test, manufacture or sell marijuana products in an Anchorage neighborhood will need to meet face-to-face with neighbors -- and sooner may be better.
Neighborhood groups and community councils have no regulatory authority to block a proposed marijuana business or require certain conditions. But Anchorage Assembly members, who do have the regulatory authority, have said they plan to take those sentiments into account as Alaska continues on the path to commercial marijuana. And industry representatives have taken note.
"A number of Assembly members already projected (that) they're going to look to community councils extensively for feedback," said Bruce Schulte, chair of the state Marijuana Control Board.
Both state and proposed local regulations contain built-in requirements for neighborhood feedback on marijuana businesses when applications start to roll in next spring. State regulations require notification to all residents within a 500-foot radius of the proposed business site, as well as the community council in the area.
Proposed city regulations require a "community meeting" to be held before an application can be submitted for a local special use permit. The draft city regulations, which are being reviewed by the city Planning and Zoning Commission, also currently contain a requirement for a "neighborhood responsibility plan" -- an idea drawn from Colorado that is not required in the alcohol license application process.
In recent weeks, Assembly members have been warning councils -- where attitudes toward marijuana businesses range from welcoming to hostile -- to get ready for what Chair Dick Traini termed a potential "firestorm," at least initially, when the application process opens up in late February next year.
Some have already formed special committees to review marijuana applications within required notice periods. One of the most proactive councils, in Fairview, has even drafted a two-page resolution outlining how it would prefer to review and give feedback on future applications that will be coming before the Assembly.
"There's a chance we're going to be a pretty high-target area," said Christopher Constant, president of the Fairview Community Council. "We decided we wanted to be ready."
Based on current zoning, likely locations for future marijuana businesses include downtown and Fairview; Midtown and Spenard; Muldoon and the Dimond area. Chugiak-Eagle River has vacant industrial land, but city planners have said they expect marijuana businesses to try to locate in existing industrial buildings for cost reasons.
Industry members and aspiring marijuana business owners say they're taking the community involvement aspect seriously.
Earlier in December, Schulte and Kim Kole of the Alaska Marijuana Industry Association stood before a roomful of community council representatives at a monthly Federation of Community Councils meeting to give a presentation on regulations and the industry.
The two speakers opened by saying they had told would-be operators to start talking to their neighbors, pronto.
"We have already talked to everyone we know: 'Don't wait until the last minute. Make sure you get engaged,'" Kole told the audience.
Being proactive in Fairview
Nick Miller is one prospective business owner following the recommendation to engage. For the past several months, Miller has been attending community council meetings in Fairview. He and his wife earlier this year bought property along East Fifth Avenue with plans to open a retail marijuana store.
"I felt it was important, not to just show up as some stranger … (but) get to know them, get to know the community, and what challenges they're facing already," Miller said.
In Fairview, those challenges have included battles with nonprofits and liquor store operators in the neighborhood, most recently the now-shuttered Spirits of Alaska store. Some of that experience has fueled the neighborhood's proactive stance on commercial marijuana: In recent weeks, the council has drafted a resolution that outlines its preferred method of contact for prospective businesses and makes clear to the Assembly that silence from the council is not a non-objection.
At the same time, the council is not hostile to marijuana business, Constant said. He said a straw poll at a recent council meeting found unanimous support for bringing the industry to the neighborhood. But he said past experience with difficult operators has made the council more wary.
For that reason, Constant said Miller's presence at meetings has been "super high value."
Miller also started a group, the Anchorage Cannabis Business Association, that is focusing on local issues and stressing the importance of working with community councils and other neighborhood groups. Miller said he's seen firsthand how councils can influence the Assembly.
But for now, nearly everyone in his group is struggling simply to find business locations, which would be the first step, Miller said.
Draft city regulations restrict marijuana retail stores to commercial areas, and cultivation and manufacturing facilities to industrial areas. The city is also seeking to expand and modify the state's list of venues that require a 500-foot buffer. Those venues now include schools, jails, churches and neighborhood recreation centers, and Anchorage hopes to add community centers, parks, therapy centers for those with disabilities and halfway houses.
At the December meeting of the Federation of Community Councils, Assembly Chair Dick Traini directed council representatives to form special committees on marijuana and plan to meet over the summer.
"The initial rush is going to be a firestorm of people," Traini said.
Ernie Hall, chair of the Assembly's own committee on marijuana regulation and taxation, said he would expect between 10 and 20 applications to land before community councils per month after the state license application opens in late February.
Anchorage has nearly 40 community councils. Some only meet several times a year; others meet monthly and have various committees.
Northstar Community Council President Sam Moore said he isn't detecting too much "NIMBY-ism" among members so far. But in nearby Spenard, president Phil Isley said he expected his council to be critical.
"(The council is) hell on liquor licenses, they're hell on new development of most types," Isley said. He said he expected would-be operators would likely have to address issues like lights, traffic and odors in order to earn the council's endorsement.
Midtown Community Council President Karen Dechman said she was writing to the city Planning and Zoning Commission to ask for more time to review the draft regulations. She said that while the Midtown council is pro-business and generally more concerned about alcohol than marijuana, there had been no contact from officials.
"We've got many millions of dollars of commercial real estate in Midtown, and this could have an impact on them," Dechman said.
Other councils have been slower to become involved. Jeff Landfield, chair of the Taku-Campbell Community Council, which includes the Dimond area, said there's been some discussion but no decisions yet about committees or special guidelines.
The same was true for Chugiak, a neighborhood with industrial land that could potentially be developed for manufacturing or cultivation facilities. Council President Maria Rentz said in an email that members didn't show much interest or concern when the topic came up at a November meeting.
More activity can be expected in the next two months, however. Bonnie Harris, the chair of the Federation of Community Councils and a South Addition Community Council member, said the federation is planning to send out documents soon that tell councils how to prepare for applications from marijuana businesses.
"We don't want not to be ready for the onslaught expected to come in after Feb. 24," Harris said, referring to the date the state will start accepting applications.
She said the federation has also formed a "Marijuana Neighborhood Impact" committee to help roll the ball forward.
In December, Traini told the Federation of Community Councils that councils should not pass outright bans on marijuana businesses. But that's already the case in the Muldoon area, where the Northeast Community Council has spent years grappling with problems related to alcohol and homelessness. In February, the council voted 19-0 against allowing commercial marijuana shops in the area, though it is forming a marijuana committee nonetheless.
"I think a lot of people are going to be against it, and not want it," said Kevin Smestad, the current chair of the committee. But, he said, "It's going to happen somewhere."