Borough Marijuana Permit Loophole Likely to Close Soon as Talkeetnans Take Sides

Correction:  A previous version of this story stated that Geri McCann and Beth Valentine both spoke at the Talkeetna Community Council, Inc. board of directors meeting.  That is incorrect.  McCann did not speak at the TCCI meeting, but did speak at the Mat-Su Borough Assembly meeting.  We apologize for the error.

A loophole in borough code that would allow marijuana businesses inside existing special land use districts will likely be closed in the next week, but the issue has spurred local critics of the cannabis industry to speak out more than two separate elections in as many years did. KTNA’s Phillip Manning has this report:

After the legalization of recreational marijuana in November of 2014, the State of Alaska set about making rules and regulations for the new industry. The initiative that made cannabis legal also allowed local governments to decide whether or not to allow commercial marijuana in their respective jurisdictions. In the Mat-Su, that came down to a ballot question on the October 2016 ballot that would have banned the cultivation and sale of marijuana in unincorporated areas of the borough. The ban effort failed borough-wide, and by nearly a two-to-one margin in Talkeetna.

Now, businesses hoping to operate in the Valley are moving forward with state and borough permit requirements. In the case of one business, however, a loophole in borough code has stirred up controversy that Talkeetna has not yet seen on the subject.

One aspect of the borough’s regulating commercial marijuana is to set up a process for conditional use permits. The permits allow for a check on facilities including correctional facilities, junk yards, and now, marijuana businesses. In crafting the new permit rules, the borough failed to update an old portion of the code that exempts areas inside of special land use districts, or SPUDs.

Joe McAneney and Dan Nelson are business partners in The High Expedition, a prospective marijuana retail facility. They hope to open their doors on Main Street in Downtown Talkeetna, an area covered by a SPUD. By current code, the business would not need a borough permit to do so, only a state license. Currently, The High Expedition is the only business that would be affected by the loophole in the borough.

Alex Strawn, Development Services Manager for the borough, says the section of code in question has not been amended since 1984, and was overlooked during the process of updating code to include commercial marijuana. Strawn says he takes a large portion of responsibility for the oversight, since he helped shepherd the new code sections through the various public processes.

Once the error was discovered, a plan was formulated to close the loophole. Alex Strawn says the fix will likely be before the Mat-Su Borough Assembly for a vote at its meeting next Tuesday. This represents a much faster process than normal for changing borough code.

Assembly Member Randall Kowalke, whose district includes Talkeetna, says he is chagrined that the error made it all the way through the process, and believes the amendment is likely to pass next Tuesday.

If the code amendment passes next week, it is very likely that The High Expedition will have to go through the Conditional Use Permit process, which includes at least one public hearing before the borough’s planning commission. The borough assembly does not vote on the permits. That would likely take place next spring. Joe McAneney is confident that The High Expedition meets all of the requirements in borough code to receive a permit. Still, the issue has brought out some who are categorically opposed to commercial marijuana on Main Street.

Talkeetnans Beth Valentine and Geri McCann spoke at Mat-Su Borough Assembly meeting, and some local social media groups are attempting to rally like-minded locals opposed to the shop. In the last week, at least one social media group has formed to support commercial marijuana in Downtown Talkeetna.

Randall Kowalke says he has had at least one Talkeetna resident ask for a temporary moratorium on conditional use permits Downtown, but he says he does not plan to sponsor such a move, citing the results of the 2014 state and 2016 borough elections in the precinct.



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