My Turn: Commercial marijuana cultivation does not belong in neighborhoods

  • By JUDY SHERBURNE, WAYNE CARNES and CAROLYN BROWN
  • Sunday, March 13, 2016 12:01am
  • Opinion

Last week, Alaska opened its doors to the commercial marijuana industry. While Ballot Measure 2 during the 2014 statewide election provided voter direction for legalizing marijuana, implementation at the local level has proven challenging for municipalities across Alaska. The City and Borough of Juneau is no exception. Unlike other municipalities, however, the CBJ Assembly passed an ordinance on a 4:4 margin to allow industrial commercial marijuana cultivation in D1 and Rural Reserve (RR) zoned residential neighborhoods including Thane, Lena, North Douglas, Auke Bay, Mendenhall Peninsula and out the road.

CBJ’s Marijuana Committee, Planning Commission and Assembly conducted meetings, listened to industry testimony and drafted zoning and business ordinances regulating commercial marijuana across the borough including cultivating, processing, testing and selling. Unlike other municipalities, however, Juneau’s decision-makers decided commercial marijuana cultivation is an activity that could be allowed in some residential neighborhoods. In opposition, CBJ planners advised to prohibit commercial marijuana cultivation in all residential zones, based on interviews with Lower 48 municipalities indicating commercial marijuana cultivation is an industrial activity that is not compatible with residential use. In the race to adopt local ordinances, the Planning Commission failed to forward adequate neighborhood safeguards to the Assembly including density limits, permit sunset provisions, setbacks, light emission and noise standards, volatile material standards, pollution standards, pesticide use guidelines and conjoining the permit to the entrepreneur and not the land.

A community-wide coalition, over 125 strong and spanning nearly all Juneau neighborhoods, has assembled to highlight the Assembly’s discriminatory decision to not provide equal protections to all neighborhoods. In our work to unify Juneau’s residential neighborhoods, we have yet to observe strong opposition to the legalization of marijuana. We have found, however, the vast majority of residents were unaware, and do not support, changes to the zoning code that allows commercial marijuana cultivation, with a conditional use permit, in neighborhoods. The public record shows despite consistent CBJ planner recommendation to protect all residential zones, and sparse but opposed public testimony, both the Planning Commission and Assembly were deeply divided on allowing commercial marijuana in neighborhoods with split votes in both bodies.

Planning and zoning principals are at the heart of the debate. Foremost among those principals is determining whether commercial marijuana cultivation is compatible with neighborhoods. Make no mistake, commercial marijuana is not equivalent to other commercial agricultural enterprises. The cannabis industry uses intensive light, on-site power generation, hazardous and flammable materials, pesticides and fertilizers, ventilation systems, carbon dioxide to accelerate plant growth and security and surveillance systems. Risks to neighboring properties include 24-hour noise, obnoxious odor, increased fire hazard, contaminated ground water and decreased property values. Federal banking laws prohibit banks from accepting drug money; commercial marijuana is a cash-only industry with a history of increased crime including assault and robbery.

Planning and zoning is a promise of predictability to property owners. It creates expectations regarding the future. The Planning Commission and Assembly are experimenting with D1 and RR neighborhoods by allowing commercial marijuana cultivation and not providing adequate safeguards — and absent public input from the residents. They have placed the interests of an industry, with known impacts, before neighborhood interest. We are not opposed to the legalization of marijuana nor the economic opportunity it presents for entrepreneurs. We are, however, opposed to changing the underlying zoning of select neighborhoods. We are also deeply concerned about public health, safety and welfare. All neighborhoods deserve equal protection while a new industry takes root in Juneau.

If you are concerned about the incompatibility of industrial commercial marijuana production with Juneau’s neighborhoods, please speak out. Email local leaders, sign our petition (JuneauD1petition@gmail.com) and make your voice heard! Let’s put aside polarizing win/lose decision-making and collaborate, with all stakeholders, to find the best route for legalizing marijuana in our community. Starting a business is only one piece of a complex issue that impacts entrepreneurs, residents, neighborhoods and the integrity of long-standing zoning practices.

• Judy Sherburne, Wayne Carnes and Carolyn Brown are longtime Juneau residents..

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