Sitting through the borough assembly meetings where alcohol control was being discussed, Brian Olson was frustrated for a couple of reasons.
One was that the conversation about regulating alcohol seemed to be embedded with assembly members’ personal feelings about alcohol use. As the owner of a local winery, Alaska Berries, Olson said he respected the right to dislike alcohol but wanted them to regulate it fairly because it is a legal commodity.
Another reason was the conversation around the minimum distances between liquor-licensed establishments and schools, churches and playgrounds. During the conversation on whether to lower the borough’s required distances from 500 feet to 300 feet, opponents repeatedly invoked the protection of children as the reason to keep it at 500 feet. Olson said he was vaguely offended, as this implies that those selling liquor don’t also care about children.
Although the change in the law wouldn’t affect him — Alaska Berries is not within the buffer zone in either case — it’s the principal of whether the policy is based on credible facts that bothered him, he said.
“I lived next to a lumberyard for awhile, and I didn’t find myself building more sheds,” Olson said. “(Whether it’s) 200 feet, 500 feet, 1,000 feet, the exact number of feet doesn’t make a difference. I know it ... anybody with common sense knows it.”
Elsewhere in the state, the minimum distance is 200 feet or 300 feet, depending on the local government’s regulation. The state’s basic requirement is 200 feet at minimum. Across the country, there are distances ranging from a few hundred feet to more than 1,500.
Since the legalization of marijuana, the state Marijuana Control Board decreed that the minimum distance from schools, churches and playgrounds must be 500 feet, though local governments have the option to add more to it. The borough’s Marijuana Task Force recently suggested a 1,000-foot buffer around schools and 500 feet around churches or playgrounds, though the borough assembly has yet to approve it. Kenai and Soldotna, among other cities statewide, have all considered different distances, dwelling on the theme of protecting youth.
Other cities in Alaska, such as Sitka and Petersburg, have appealed to the state to reduce the minimum distance for marijuana from 500 feet to 200 feet, saying they cannot operate anywhere that complies with the setback because of the small towns’ geographical limits.
However, an essential question asked by council members, task force members and public attendees has not been answered: Do the setbacks work to protect kids?
Do setbacks work?
There is not much quantifiable research on whether buffers between schools, churches and playgrounds and alcohol stores work, but the social science research appears to show that it does work in some ways.
Density of alcohol outlets may be a greater factor in youth exposure and consumption than distance from areas where young people congregate, said Debra Furr-Holden, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University who participated in research on liquor stores in residential areas of Baltimore, Maryland.
The research concluded that children benefit when alcohol outlets are further from their homes. In Baltimore, the mandatory distance is 300 feet. Children who live in homes closer to liquor stores than that tend to have worse outcomes, she said, not necessarily because of consumption but fringe effects like violence, drug dealing, and robbery.
“The short version is that the further away alcohol outlets are (from homes), the better off they are,” Furr-Holden said. “We would assume the same is true of the places they go to school.”
The research focused on urban neighborhoods, but Furr-Holden said the rule probably held true in suburban areas near Baltimore. More rural towns, where the retail stores are more centered in districts away from residential neighborhoods, may have different trends, she said.
However, density of alcohol outlets was what the researchers were most interested in changing, using the minimum distance requirement as a tool, she said.
Furr-Holden said she and others were working with the city of Baltimore to change the way liquor licenses are issued to add liquor-licensed establishments to the list of facilities requiring a 300-foot buffer. She said that if the code goes through as written, it could reduce liquor store density in the city by as much as 20 percent.
“When there’s a density buildup, there’s a problem,” Furr-Holden said. “When you look at basic indicators, like average life expectancy, basic indicators of health and wellbeing, the areas that have the highest density have some of the highest health and wellness issues.”
Other research has shown that density of alcohol outlets may increase youth consumption, while others have shown no correlation. Still others have linked violence to the number of alcohol outlets in a given area. Furr-Holden said that in any community, there are a number of “confounding factors” that make it hard to determine the exact effect of where alcohol outlets are and how many there are.
Maryland and Alaska differ in one major way, though: Alaska is a limited-entry state. Population determines the number of liquor licenses allowed, and unless there is an enormous population growth, no more will be issued. That number is currently one per every 3,000 residents — though a bill, Senate Bill 99 introduced by Sen. Peter Micciche (R-Soldotna) — is considering changing it to one per every 10,000 residents for certain types of licenses. The bill is currently being considered by the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee.
Currently in the Kenai Peninsula Borough, all the licenses are owned. Marijuana will be different, as the state has not set a population limit on the number of licenses, although it could in the future.
Setbacks have been around as long as liquor licenses in Alaska. Until the end of the 19th century, Alaska was classified “Indian country” and possession, sale and transportation of alcohol was illegal. Some people still drank, but there were no licensed saloons.
That all changed after the gold rush. Suddenly thousands of men were pouring into the towns of Alaska and wanted thousands of drinks. Saloons popped up on the main streets of Skagway, a mining hub. At one point, the town had more than 100, said Catherine Holder Spude, a historian and author of “Saloons, Prostitutes and Temperance in Alaska Territory,” a book on alcohol history and regulation in Alaska.
Nationwide, the temperance movement was gaining traction. Local officials in Skagway, seeing that statehood might be in the cards for Alaska based on its growing population, wanted to attract young families, Spude said.
“It was very hard to separate vice — which I kind of view as the gambling and prostitution issues — from the saloon issues,” Spude said. “Exactly the same reformers were involved in the same issues in Alaska. … They were successful with saloons. Shortly after that, they shut down the red light districts in Southeast, in their effort to control bootleg liquor.”
The federal government passed Alaska’s first liquor licensing laws in 1899. The $1,000 price tag for licenses — $25,000 in today’s dollars — chased out many, including most of the “fly-by-night” operations, Spude said. The number of saloons in Skagway quickly dropped from 100 to 16, she said.
The law also included a 400-foot distance requirement between liquor licensed establishments and churches and schools. The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, a local chapter of a national prohibitionist group, soon lit into several saloons they said were too close to Skagway’s one church. Upon further examination, only two were too close, and only one had to shutter.
The other simply moved its doorway to comply with the law, said Bill Howell, the author of “Alaska Beer: Liquid Gold in the Land of the Midnight Sun.” Ironically, the same setback law delayed the construction of a public school in Skagway later, Howell said.
“The saloons said, ‘You can’t build a public school there, it’s in violation of the law,’” Howell said. “It delayed Skagway getting their public school open. (The saloon owners said), ‘You want to enforce that law? You have to follow it too.’”
Alaska voted itself dry in 1917, several years before the nation went into Prohibition. Liquor sales again became legal in 1933, when Prohibition ended. At that point, license quotas were born, allowing Alaska’s Territorial Legislature to control the number of licenses per capita. Many states have similar quotas.
The setback remained. Howell said the 400-foot buffer seemed to come out of the air, without a precedent for why it was that particular distance.
“What’s magical about 400 feet?” Howell said. “I’m sure nobody was doing any kind of scientific study or anything like that. They just extracted a number.”
Because the licenses are limited and hard to get, the price goes up, increasing the cost of investment. The going rate in the Kenai Peninsula Borough is about $250,000 when someone wants to purchase an existing license from a current licensee. Because the state has issued all the licenses it can under the population limits, licenses are most commonly transferred among owners.
The sheer cost of a liquor license incentivizes owners not to serve minors and risk having their license taken away, Howell said.
“If you’re a liquor store owner or a bar owner with a license, particularly a license that you paid a quarter-million dollars for, you have a strong incentive not to serve somebody underage,” Howell said. “If you have a long history and you’re busted, they could take that license away and guess what? You just lost a quarter-million dollars.”
Reach Elizabeth Earl at firstname.lastname@example.org.