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By Dan Rudy 

Zoning revisions being made for pot businesses

 

Submitted Illustration

The bolded lines on the map depict a rough estimate of the 500-foot buffer between marijuana establishments and schools, churches, and youth parks mandated by the state. For schools and parks, this distance begins from the property line, but for churches and recreation centers it starts from the door, measured by the quickest pedestrian route 500 feet out. Because of its geography and surplus of churches, Wrangell leaves few locations in town for any new cannabis retailers.

On May 12 the Planning and Zoning Commission presided over a lengthy workshop and meeting meant to iron out which cannabis-related businesses would be appropriate for nonresidential zones in Wrangell.

In particular, commissioners looked at the community's only such business being proposed, a mainly retail shop with small-scale cultivation and manufacturing capabilities to be opened in the old hotel behind the Diamond C Cafe. Restaurateur Kelsey Martinsen is already going through the state Marijuana Control Board's application process for the three licenses, the approval of which will in part depend on whether his business plan conforms to local zoning requirements.

Based on his proposed activities, at its April 14 meeting the commission learned from Wrangell zoning administrator Carol Rushmore that not all of Martinsen's businesses would not meet the criteria Wrangell has on its books for commercial properties. Under current definitions, the retail side of Happy Cannabis' operations would be permissible, but not the cultivation or extraction end of the business.

Martinsen appealed the decision, and Planning and Zoning opted to look at whether current zoning needed to be updated to suit the upcoming industry.

"We're in a restructuring process, too," explained commissioner Don McConachie. "That ordinance suited us until this came along."

At past meetings, commissioners were already of one mind that marijuana shops had no business in single- or multi-family residential zones.

"I don't think testing and retail should be allowed (there)," McConachie said. Additionally, he recommended that prospective license-holders also have to acquire a conditional use permit for any marijuana activities they wished to pursue, in order to allow the commission to more closely examine proposals while giving the public an opportunity to weigh in during the required hearing process.

"If we deal with complaints at the beginning, then you're going to have a much smoother ride," he said to Martinsen and any other prospective pot proprietors.

Within commercial and light industrial zones, commissioners Terri Henson, Duke Mitchell, Roland Howell, Apryl Hutchinson and McConachie decided limited cultivation of marijuana plants would be acceptable, with certain restrictions. Currently, two grades of cultivation licenses allow for its holders to grow either up to 500 square feet of the plant with a limited license, or else 500 and above without limit with a standard license.

Martinsen is applying for a standard cultivator's license, with intentions to grow a little more than 1,500 square feet worth of cannabis in grow bays inside his shop. He explained the plants would be cultivated in a staggered fashion, giving his business a reliable supply throughout the year. He explained that arrangement would also help to limit the plants' potent odor, as they smell strongly when in bloom. The air flow in the grow area would be further controlled by coal filtration, making operations undetectable to passersby outside the shop.

"We wouldn't try to do this if we didn't think we could control this," he said.

Concerned about setting a precedent, Howell suggested capping the quantity a person could cultivate inside a commercial property to a percentage of the total building space. Other commissioners preferred setting a cap by square footage, and after discussion settled on an upper threshold of 2,000 square feet for commercial and light industrial properties. These zones were singled out for the restriction in part because of their nearness to residential neighborhoods. Any cultivation would need to be kept indoors and out of sight from the general public.

For industrial and waterfront development zones, the commission was amenable to allowing unlimited cultivation with a standard license.

Henson voiced another concern, citing fire and explosion hazards posed by the manufacturing of hash oils and other concentrates. Martinsen explained that sort of risk was largely restricted to processes that make use of butane and other flammable solvents, which he would not pursue. Rather, the method he preferred would use ice water to separate tetrahydrocannabinol from the plant for its resins.

McConachie recommended an updated zoning ordinance state clearly what processes will be allowable under a manufacturing license. For example, in commercial and light industrial zones commissioners wanted to prohibit any solvent-based methods of extraction. On the other hand, they felt there would be less problem allowing for those methods further out in industrial and waterfront development zoned properties.

"And I think that's where the conditional use comes in," Mitchell pointed out. Ultimately, the commission would be able to review proposals on a case by case basis and address any safety concerns.

For remote residential mixed-use zones, the commission felt all activities could be provided for with conditional use. "With notice that gives their neighbors and other members of the community opportunity to comment," Henson added.

Beyond local zoning, the commission also had to consider other restrictions on marijuana operations placed by the state legislature. For instance, state law mandates a 500-foot buffer between marijuana-related businesses and churches, schools, and "recreation or youth centers."

In 3 AAC 306.990, this latter pair is defined as a building, structure, athletic playing field or playground run or created by the local government or the state to provide athletic, recreational or leisure activities for minors, or are operated by a public or private organization licensed to provide shelter, training or guidance for persons under 21 years of age.

Commissioners supported city staff recommendations for the designation of various amenities as being either recreational or not. Rushmore had recommended that the running track near Evergreen Elementary School, the Mt. Dewey trail, and Petroglyph Beach State Park be considered recreational or youth-centered facilities in accordance with the state mandated buffer.

Conversely, it was her interpretation that the Nolan Center, Stikine

Native Organization building, Chief Shakes Tribal House and Totem Park did not meet the criteria for that definition. Though youth organizations may

use the Nolan or SNO facilities in part or on occasion, Rushmore felt the

primary purpose and operations of these facilities were distinctly different.

Commissioners agreed unanimously, adding that the Shoemaker Bay

waterfront development zone should also be considered as ill suited for

marijuana-related business, due to its proximity to the harbor's park and Rainbow Falls trailhead. And fielding a question from the audience, they

found that neither the Brueger

Street sidewalk nor City Hall lawn constituted a "park" in any meaningful sense.

In addition to cultivation, retail and manufacturing, licenses exist for

testing facilities meant to ensure

marijuana-based products meet state quality and chemical guidelines. Rushmore pointed out that "testing" does not neatly fit into any current

type of zoning, and looked to the commission for some guidance on how to proceed. Essentially a laboratory, commissioners had fewer concerns with that type of licensed operation than the others.

"As long as it meets that criteria of 500 feet, and it has a conditional use, I think 'fine,'" said Henson. Voicing the consensus, Henson felt testing could qualify for commercial zoning as it falls under existing conditions as a "business or professional office." However, Hutchinson recommended updating the ordinance to allow specifically for marijuana testing.

All that is left for the commission to examine will be the two classes of rural residential zoning, the decision for which was held off at the request of McConachie, who wanted extra time to consider the alternatives.

Another special meeting has been

set for May 26 to continue that

discussion and conclude

recommendations. Afterward, Rushmore will set to drawing up a draft ordinance updating the current code based on the commission's recommendations,

which will have to pass again through Planning and Zoning and the Assembly, with the necessary public hearings.

If and when those have been

adopted, Rushmore explained Martinsen could proceed with his application process.

"It's just one more step of

bureaucracy that everyone hates," McConachie said. However, he

cited the industry's novelty and the

complex framework of state and

federal laws which put marijuana

in a legal gray area as good reasons

for the city to conduct its due

diligence.

In other zoning business,

commissioners approved a request for conditional use by Laura Massin to

relocate her tanning salon to the

industrial park, Lot 8 Block 59B. May 25 will be her business' fifth anniversary.

 

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