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At town hall, Eagle River residents wary of commercial pot

  • Author: Devin Kelly
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published February 7, 2016

The Anchorage Assembly is expected to vote Tuesday on land use and licensing regulations that will determine the look and location of pot businesses in the municipality, including in Girdwood and Chugiak-Eagle River.

Some of the most mixed feelings on the regulations may be in Chugiak-Eagle River, where about 30 people attended a Saturday town hall on the topic. The event was organized by Anchorage Assembly member Amy Demboski, who said she hoped to answer questions and gather as much feedback as possible ahead of Tuesday's meeting.

Most who attended live in Eagle River and other communities to the north, though some were cannabis entrepreneurs from Anchorage. The mix contrasted with an Assembly hearing in Anchorage last week that drew largely pro-pot testimony from a business crowd.

Among representatives of Chugiak-Eagle River's zoning advisory board, discomfort was evident.

"The perception is that because we have most of the developing ground and real estate out here, Eagle River is going to be a marijuana dumping ground," said Karl von Luhrte, also a member of South Fork Community Council, on the southeastern boundary of Eagle River.

Most of the city's vacant industrial land and undeveloped property is located in Chugiak and Birchwood. It's also a more conservative part of the municipality, and a majority of voters opposed the 2014 initiative -- irony that isn't lost on community leaders.

"The area of town that philosophically has had the most trouble with the ordinance, may also be the most impacted," Debbie Ossiander, a member of the Birchwood Community Council and a former Assembly member, said in an interview after the meeting.

In Girdwood, at the other end of the municipality, the opposite problem is in play — Assembly member Bill Evans has introduced a proposal aimed at lowering the required separation distance between marijuana businesses and schools, playgrounds and athletic facilities from 1,000 feet to 500 feet, the same that's in state law. He said last week that Girdwood is "enthusiastic" about the business, but has very little land where it can develop.

At Saturday's town hall, feedback was mixed on where to allow marijuana businesses, and whether customers should be allowed to consume pot products in retail stores or in social clubs.

Kevin MacNamara of the Birchwood Community Council said he didn't think any marijuana businesses should be allowed. He also said a 1,000-foot separation distance from schools should be required, as opposed to 500 feet, a sentiment echoed by other community council representatives.

In January, the city Planning and Zoning Commission recommended allowing grow operations and manufacturing businesses in larger business districts, though only if operated with a retail store. That change, which commissioners said was aimed at recognizing land limitations, could have a big impact on Chugiak-Eagle River, Demboski said. She said it appeared the policy was more aimed at the Anchorage Bowl.

An Eagle River real estate agent, Bernie McClure, said she used to live in Denver, where recreational marijuana use was legalized before it was in Alaska. On her visits back, she said she found commercial marijuana had fundamentally changed her old community.

"To protect the few when it endangers the many is not right," McClure said.

On the other side was Nick Miller, a Thunderbird Falls resident who is planning to open a marijuana business in the Fairview neighborhood in Anchorage. He said he's been meeting with architects and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars just to open a small retail store.

Miller has been meeting with the Fairview Community Council for months. He also helped with a proposal for a "neighborhood responsibility plan," which Demboski is proposing to reintroduce into the regulations.

"We want to do this right and be forthright with neighbors," Miller told the room. "I live here as well."

After the meeting, Eagle River resident Doug Maxfield said he was fed up. When taken in moderation, he said, marijuana is a "valuable" medical drug.

But he said the community's vote on the initiative "allows them to throw logjams in front of the train."

Both Chugiak-Eagle River and Girdwood have separate sections in city land use code that allow for autonomy in adapting local rules. Ossiander said the advisory board will wait to see what the Assembly approves Tuesday and then propose recommendations under the Chugiak-Eagle River section of land use code.

That might include further restricting the separation distance between marijuana businesses and schools, possibly to 2,000 feet from schools, von Luhrte said

Demboski said she plans to propose several amendments Tuesday aimed at reflecting concerns in the community, including one to potentially exempt Chugiak-Eagle River from the planning commission's recommendation to expand the types of properties where pot businesses can be located.

"You want to do things well, you want them to be well thought out and you want them to be fair," Demboski said. "The thing we can't predict are unintended consequences."

She also stressed that Tuesday's Assembly vote would hardly be the last word on the issue.

"I can guarantee, within a year, the Assembly will be going back and making tweaks," Demboski told the room.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Karl von Luhrte as "Luhke."

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