When David Parker applied for a license to grow marijuana commercially at a facility in Sterling, he knew he’d have to jump through a lot of hoops. But he wasn’t expecting 11 of the neighbors in the area he planned to open his standard cultivation facility, called Fat Tops, to write letters opposing his license and asked the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly to reject it.
At the assembly’s April 4 meeting, several of the neighbors testified in person opposing the license, and more submitted letters. Parker said he’d never met any of the people speaking against his license, nor have they called him, despite his phone number being publicly available.
“There were people who voted to not decriminalize marijuana, and there are people who have very strong views, and that’s what it is,” he said. “They’re expressing their opposition to the industry. I don’t take it personally. I’ve not met any of them, and I believe that once I’m in business, all of the things that they’ve addressed will really have no effect on them at all … They may resent my business. They probably won’t change their minds about it.”
At its April 4 meeting, the assembly heard from several nearby residents who were concerned about the impact of the standard marijuana cultivation facility in their area, on the corner of Murray Lane and the Sterling Highway just outside Soldotna. Fat Tops would be close to homes, a church and a school bus stop, according to opponents. Others worried about increased traffic and potential decreases in property value, according to public comments submitted to the borough.
Tracey Ratliff, who lives next door to the proposed business, told the assembly she is worried about the facility’s water use, chemical discharges and possible ventilation issues.
“I guess I would just ask the assembly to be thoughtful and cautious moving forward. I know everybody’s trying to make their money off this, but I think we need to consider how we want our communities to look,” she said. “… It just disturbs me to have this kind of thing coming into the neighborhood.”
Jim Bergovin, who said he lives about 1,200 feet down the road from Fat Tops’ proposed location, said he is especially concerned about the impact on children in the neighborhood, who often walk to the cluster mailboxes near where the proposed store will be and to the school bus stop on the highway.
“It’s a nice neighborhood,” he said. “Would you like one in your backyard? How do you think it would affect your property values?”
The borough’s letter of nonobjection, a formal letter stating the borough’s approval of the license, is the last barrier to starting operations for Fat Tops — the Marijuana Control Board issued Fat Tops’ cultivation license at its April meeting. Some of the same neighbors submitted letters to the Marijuana Control Board, objecting to the license for the same reasons. Parker has applied for a retail cannabis store license as well, but it has not been approved yet.
The assembly tabled the approval for Fat Tops based on a concern about driveway access to the property at its April 18 meeting. The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities did not have a record of a driveway permit for the lot, according to a letter submitted to the borough assembly from DOT, which is required to meet the qualifications for a retail license. The assembly postponed the approval of the permit until the May 2 meeting at the recommendation of the borough’s Planning Commission, which will discuss the license at its April 24 meeting.
Usually, the assembly approves nonobjection letters to alcohol and marijuana licenses through its consent agenda, as it’s a formality to ensure that the business is operating under the borough’s additional stipulations, which include staying in tax compliance, operating within limited hours and not causing any parking in borough rights-of-way. At the April 4 meeting, multiple other licenses went through without controversy.
Additional hurdles for marijuana licenses beyond just meeting legal requirements are part of a trend at the assembly. In March, assembly member Stan Welles of Sterling pulled a nonobjection letter for a proposed marijuana license in Homer from the consent agenda and voted against it based on his personal objection to marijuana being sold legally. A stalwart opponent of commercial marijuana legalization, Welles has pulled the approval for other licenses off the consent agenda to oppose them in the past as well.
At the meeting in March, three members of the assembly voted against the letter for the license in Homer, though the business met all the borough’s requirements. Ultimately, the letter passed, but it sparked a discussion about whether the assembly can legally oppose a license if it meets the requirements. If the borough refused approval though the license met all its requirements, the Marijuana Control Board could overturn the objection as arbitrary and capricious.
However, the residents of Murray Lane aren’t alone in their concerns about marijuana. Last year, a citizen initiative to ban commercial marijuana operations in the borough outside the cities got the required 898 signatures to be placed on the ballot, but not until October 2017. Residents of the borough’s incorporated cities won’t get to weigh in, but the voters in the unincorporated areas will decide whether the more than a dozen growers and retail operators will get to continue to operate on the peninsula.
The cannabis industry is estimated to contribute about $5.3 million to the peninsula’s economy, according to a survey conducted by industry members . If Proposition 1 passes, 16 of the 17 licensees will have to close or move.
Parker said he estimates Fat Tops would create about 10 jobs. Contrary to what opponents said about his relocation into the neighborhood, improving his property to meet the licensing requirements likely increased the property value in the area, he said.
“If people in the borough decide that it’s got to end for us, it’s got to end for us,” he said. “But the people who really want (the proposition to pass) are the people who haven’t taken an honest adult-like look at marijuana and its effects, its effects on the economy, effects on individuals, everything. They want to believe what they want to believe.”
Reach Elizabeth Earl at firstname.lastname@example.org.