Smaller marijuana cultivators are already exempt from strict property drawbacks in Mat-Su, a change some say will assist the Valley’s longtime illicit area growers move from the black market into legal sales.
Others, however, say the change does not go far enough to boost the increase of a leading commercial marijuana industry.
Mat-Su, with its rich soils and proximity to urban centers of demand, has for ages been viewed as the marijuana cultivation capital in Alaska. But growers outside the city of Houston fell under a months-long commercial marijuana moratorium in 2016 and are just now starting to get underway amid a statewide legal marijuana supply deficit.
In what critics called another challenge to cannabis industry here, borough regulations adopted in August for legal marijuana comprised a 100-foot setback from rear lot lines or adjoining side, and 50 feet from roads.
Preparation officials say given the borough’s lack of proper zoning, that was the sole solution to safeguard residential areas from being inundated with commercial marijuana businesses.
The drawbacks are stricter than those in state law, which require marijuana businesses be more than 500 feet from a school, recreation or youth center or correctional facility.
The Matanuska-Susitna Borough Assembly on Tuesday added an amendment to the borough ordinance that exempts businesses with less than 500 square feet of marijuan under cultivation on any particular parcel.
The new change could benefit about 20 applicants for state limited-cultivation permits in Mat-Su outside Houston, which controls marijuana independently. State law defines limited-cultivators as those with fewer than 500 square feet under cultivation.
However there are almost as numerous applicants in the borough for bigger, conventional cultivation permits.
The looser drawbacks will not help growers like Thomas Hannam, who told the Assembly Tuesday he wants to start a “very commercial” 24,000-square-foot operation near Wasilla on property he purchased 30 years ago.
Hannam said he sank more than $700,000 into the investment after a borough planner two years past told him he was okay to go. The adjoining property that is within the setback distance is “swampland and trees,” he said, and his neighbors are farmers and are cannabis-friendly.
The drawback requirement “actually set a hindrance on me, my livelihood and my life,” he said. “Abolish it and set the state’s requirements in its place.”
But Kerby Coman, who runs Green Degree, a limited-cultivation and retail business on Knik-Goose Bay Road outside Wasilla, supported the change. Coman said he is paid a $3,500 monthly lease for the previous year, waiting for the dust to settle in the conflict over borough regulations.
Coman noted the long history in the Valley with cannabis and said the change will give in-house operators selling on the black market simpler accessibility to the regulated area.
“No matter where your home is, chances are you have a cultivator in your neighborhood,” he said.
The Assembly also approved another change that enables a controversial Talkeetna retail store on Main Street to continue with getting a state license without filing a conditional-use permit in the borough level.
A minumum of one business will be allowed by the change — The High Expedition — make use of a regulatory supervision which allows marijuana businesses within specific land-use districts to steer clear of the borough conditional-use permit procedure typically required for developments that are possibly contentious.
High Expedition co-owner Joe McAneney said he expects to go before the Marijuana Control Board by April for approval.
McAneney formerly said he’d always intended to file a conditional-use license regardless of what code required. On Thursday he said he no longer means to because of multiple blunders made by the borough.
The language in borough code that removed special-use districts from the license procedure was designed to be fixed at a December Assembly meeting however an issue with public notice delayed the decision.
Quite a few upset Talkeetna residents unsuccessfully testified at Tuesday’s meeting in opposition to any change that would enable a retail marijuana business on Main Street and close a park.
But Dan Mayfield and Randall Kowalke, Susitna Valley Assembly members, noted that the business was supported by the Talkeetna Chamber of Commerce and community council.
The borough last summer taken off the initial draft of its own regulations a 500-foot setback from parks that will have essentially removed any marijuana facilities in Talkeetna, development services manager Alex Strawn said at a meeting.