What started as a group of about half a dozen North Douglas residents unhappy about the city’s zoning rules for future marijuana establishments has grown into a movement 100-people strong.
The group has captured the attention of city officials, but it’s too early to tell whether its call to reverse the Assembly’s zoning decision — allowing limited commercial marijuana cultivation in D1 and Rural Reserve zones — will be answered.
“I think what you’ve got here is an upwelling of voice that says we don’t want you to change the zoning that was put in place to protect the integrity of residential zones,” said Kaja Brix.
Brix is a member of the original group, and her organizing efforts have helped attract new supporters, but she was not alone.
On Feb. 21, Brix and several of her North Douglas neighbors started circulating a petition calling for the Assembly to amend the city’s Table of Permissible Uses, which dictates how people can use their property in each zone. Whether a homeowner wants to open a daycare business or, in this case, a marijuana farm, the desired use must be compatible with the TPU.
Back in November, the Assembly decided that it would allow limited commercial grow operations in D1 and Rural Reserve Zones so long as they are outside the urban service boundary.
The Nov. 9 decision allowed for small marijuana farms of less than 500 square feet — a little larger than a single-car garage — to operate in these zones, both of which also allow for residential use and contain neighborhoods. In order to operate, however, any such business would need a conditional use permit.
“Given our limited land base and our high land costs in Juneau, to make this possible allowing cultivation outside the urban service boundary is probably the wisest course,” said Assembly member Jesse Kiehl, who also chaired the city’s Marijuana Policy Committee, at the Assembly’s Nov. 9 meeting.
Kiehl wasn’t alone in his thinking, but he wasn’t unopposed either. Mayor Mary Becker, then just an Assembly member, moved to prohibit commercial grow operations from all D1 zones. Her motion failed with a 4–4 vote, and the matter fell out of the public eye until the first conditional use permit for a limited grow operation on North Douglas came up for public hearing last month.
“We agree that the residential use and the industrial use do not mix,” North Douglas resident Merry Ellefson told the Empire in a phone interview Monday afternoon. Brix and Fred Hiltner, another North Douglas resident who helped start the petition, were also on the line.
This was not the first time Ellefson, Brix and Hiltner have spoken out against allowing commercial cultivation in D1 zones. Along with a handful of others, they have testified at every Assembly and Planning Commission meeting since Feb. 8.
Thanks to their petition — which now has 100 signatures, spreading only by “word of email,” according to Ellefson — the group is throwing around a little more weight, enough to bring the zoning discussion back to the Assembly chambers.
Kiehl, chair of the Assembly Committee of the Whole, has put the issue on the agenda for the next Assembly work session set for March 14.
“I don’t think it’s good government to shut down the discussion, so we’ll talk about it March 14,” Kiehl said via phone Monday, adding that he doesn’t know what will come of the discussion. “We have two new members of the Assembly who didn’t have the opportunity to participate in the first zoning decision, and we’ve had folks who, even though the Assembly held more public hearings than usual, didn’t know this was happening.”
Brix, Ellefson and Hiltner have already presented their petition to the Assembly, but they have since added a few new names to it, including Joe Orsi, who lives beyond the urban service boundary just past the Auke Recreation Area.
“My concern is that commercial cultivation of marijuana isn’t compatible with residential areas, even though they’re low-density residential areas,” Orsi said in a phone interview Monday.
Orsi operates his business, an organic produce farm, out of his yard. He grows produce ranging “from apples to zucchinis” under a high-tunnel greenhouse a little larger 1,000 square feet. He then sells his crops to the Juneau Farmers’ Market.
But he is worried that if commercial marijuana cultivation is allowed in residential zones, like the one in which he lives, people might think that he is growing more than just produce in his greenhouse.
“I don’t like the idea of people looking for something that’s not there,” he said, explaining that his greenhouse could make him the target of people looking for marijuana.
Orsi is not the only person from outside of North Douglas to sign the petition. Only 14 of the 100 signatures on the petition are North Douglas residents. However, about 60 of the signatures come from people living outside the urban service boundary. The petition represents 73 different households. Anybody looking to sign the petition can do so by sending an email to JuneauD1petition@gmail.com.
“Sometimes in the last moment, the best ideas come forward, and the more ideas the better,” Ellefson said.