Shortly after the state legalized the possession, production and sale of marijuana in November 2014 — the result of a voter initiative — longtime Juneau residents June Hall and her husband Paul Disdier made up their minds. They were going to start a marijuana cultivation business.
Now, a little more than a year later, that is still the goal, but their plans are stuck in gridlock, bottlenecked by bureaucracy and a handful of people who don’t want marijuana grow operations in their back yards.
“We’re kind of in limbo here in a lot of ways,” Hall told the Empire Thursday afternoon. “All of the pieces have to fit together, or you can’t pull this off.”
Hall and her husband are having a hard time with a crucial piece of paperwork: securing a conditional use permit for their business, The Fireweed Factory LLC, which will sit in the yard of their North Douglas home. In order to secure a state marijuana license, applicants must first jump through several hoops at the city level. One of these is the CUP process, which all marijuana businesses will have to go through in Juneau.
Hall and Disdier were the first — and so far the only — people in the city to file for a conditional use permit for a marijuana establishment. They wanted to be the first people to obtain a state license, too, but that once-tangible goal is quickly slipping through their fingers.
This is at least in part due to a heated Planning Commission meeting that took place earlier this month. Hall and Disdier both attended the Feb. 9 meeting, during which the commission was scheduled to discuss a marijuana-related ordinance. The ordinance amends the city’s Land Use Code “to provide for the regulation of marijuana use and marijuana establishments.”
Six North Douglas residents, who live near Hall and Disdier’s home, attended the meeting and testified during a lengthy public comment period about a number of things ranging from the Assembly’s marijuana zoning laws to the Fireweed Factory CUP. This caught the couple off-guard.
“We went there expecting to hear about the ordinance,” Disdier told the Empire Thursday afternoon. “Somehow it became a referendum on zoning and our conditional use permit.”
“Needless to say, we were surprised,” Hall added. Neither Hall nor Disdier testified at the meeting.
They weren’t the only ones. After the public comment period ended, Planning Commission member Bill Peters told his peers and the members of the public still in the room that Planning Commission Chair Nicole Grewe, who also lives on North Douglas, should have roped in the public comments that didn’t pertain to the ordinance before them. He also questioned whether she has a conflict of interest in the case that will prohibit her from hearing Hall and Disdier’s CUP request because she lives near them.
“I also want to raise the issue just in terms of orders of the day in your role in keeping us on task and what you are allowing to occur in terms of public testimony,” Peters said to Grewe. “And also, that I heard some comment with regard to a CUP that is going to be before us on Feb. 23 which I believe there is some level of conflict there for you? I want that on record that there may be a conflict of interest that was not raised as a part of this process.”
Grewe didn’t respond to Peters’ comments at the time, but she told the Empire Wednesday that she “has a record of declaring conflicts of interest” and is in touch with the city attorney to make sure she handles this permit properly.
“Airing on the side of caution, I’ve already told city attorneys that I live within a half mile down the road,” she said.
Grewe also said that she doesn’t really know any of the other North Douglas residents who testified, with the exception of Todd Boris who spoke for about 25 minutes. Boris is Grewe’s husband. None of the testifiers were there at her request, she said.
Regardless, Hall and Disdier’s permit is on hold once again, this time by their own doing, said Chrissy Steadman, the CDD planner tasked with handling their application. The permit is still active, but Steadman has pulled the hearing from the agenda and postponed until the applicants feel comfortable going before the Planning Commission — at a time when discussion is less heated perhaps. Hall and Disdier said that the city has “been nothing but helpful” in dealing with this.
Though not by commission action, Grewe’s request to postpone the hearing for a second time has come true. The commission is currently working through a marijuana-related ordinance that it will soon pass to the Assembly for consideration. And Grewe doesn’t think any conditional use permits should be awarded, or even discussed, until the Assembly has passed all marijuana-related ordinances before it. She made this clear at the most recent Planning Commission meeting and in a phone interview with the Empire on Wednesday afternoon.
Grewe, a North Douglas resident, told the Assembly that she wasn’t happy with its decision to allow commercial cultivation in D1 zones outside the urban service boundary, where she lives. The Assembly made this decision in early November.
“We answered the where, but we didn’t answer the how,” she told the Assembly, acknowledging that it is may be too late to change the zoning regulations. And she sees the marijuana ordinance before the Planning Commission now as the proper place to answer the “how.”
“I feel like the city and borough has missed the boat for incentivizing certain zones while safeguarding others,” she said via phone Wednesday, explaining that this ordinance is the “logical” place to add safeguards. “If you want safeguards, this is the place to do it.”
Hall and Disdier said that they welcome regulation and will abide by any and every city and state regulation. They did, however, say that some of the worries about their grow facility changing the character of the neighborhood are “unfounded.”
They’ve already held one open house to answer any neighbors questions regarding the Fireweed Factory.
“Once they talked to us, and they understood what we were doing, they were on board with it,” Disdier said.
Both he and Hall said that their next-door neighbors and their neighbor across the street have said they’re fine with the Fireweed Factory. Several people have even written letters to the city supporting Hall and Disdier’s plan.
“My family and I support the tradition of the small American family farm,” North Douglas resident Greg Cook wrote. “Personally, I come from a long family history of farming. We are proud that our daughter continues this tradition and owns our family farmstead in Nebraska (corn and beans). With this in mind, my family and I SUPPORT the application of June Hall and Paul Disdier to grow marijuana at their North Douglas homestead, located about half a mile from our house.”
Hall and Disdier have lived in Juneau since 1974, they have lived in their current home on North Douglas since 1975, and they said they wouldn’t do anything they felt would change the character of their neighborhood.
“Bottom line is: I wouldn’t do anything to my neighbors that I wouldn’t want them to do to me,” Hall said.