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From Ports to Pot, Pensive City Council Considers Nome’s Future

An aerial view of Nome's small boat harbor and port. Photo: Joy Baker, City of Nome.

Questioning Nome’s budding marijuana ordinances gave way to discussions on port expansion at the City Council’s latest meeting.

Citizens comments saw Nome resident Tim Smith take the podium to urge the council to reject the city’s proposed marijuana ordinances. After months of drafts and tweaking, the council formally took the new rules under consideration, but a public hearing will be required before a final passage.

Smith didn’t take issue with many aspects of the ordinance, but did single out sections he says the city of Nome can’t hope to enforce, including sections that seek to limit or outright ban transporting marijuana to Nome for manufacture or sale within city limits.

Nome's draft marijuana laws. Image: City of Nome. (Click for PDF)

Nome’s draft marijuana laws. Image: City of Nome. (Click for PDF)

Smith said the proposed limits on a now-legal drug like marijuana are unconstitutionally broad and restrictive.

“The Alaska Supreme Court has been very, very articulate and complete in spelling out what the right of privacy in the Alaska constitution protects with regards to marijuana,” Smith said, referring to both the newly liberalized marijuana laws in a voter referendum in November, as well as the cornerstone 1975 state Supreme Court case, Ravin v. Alaska.

“They’ve said very clear[ly] that you need to show a compelling public interest before you can restrict a citizen’s rights. And I don’t think the city can do that in this case,” Smith said. “It’s a very, very sticky thing when the government starts telling people they can’t use or consume legal substances.”

Council member Randy Pomeranz said he wants City Attorney Brooks Chandler to review the proposed ordinance before a final vote, with Smith’s objections in mind.

“Could we have Brooks take a look at these recommendations by Mr. Smith,” Pomeranz asked, “and see if he could come back with a little bit of explanation on some of these?”

The comment period over, the council moved rapidly through unfinished business, approving a new ordinance prohibiting overnight camping on city property, and another removing the utility as a regulator of trucked water. The council then approved an array of half a dozen ordinances on a “first look” basis, ranging from new noise limits to prohibitions on discharging firearms in city limits, to utility budgets and tariff increase. There was little pause for questions or comments, but in keeping with the utility’s efforts to increase revenue, utility manager John Handeland said the utility board will be laying the groundwork to re-assess the electricity rates charged to so-called “rural” customers outside city limits.

The conversation then shifted to ports, and council member Stan Andersen said,  in the wake of several high-profile visits to rural Alaska this summer, the city needs to do more to attract visitors.

“The president’s coming to town, he’s going to Kotzebue [and] Dillingham. They’re holding meetings around the Arctic Council, they’re going to Kotzebue. Why can’t we get anybody coming to Nome?” he asked in frustration.

Mayor Denise Michels responded that Nome has in fact been welcoming important guests, with many focused on the potential for a deep-draft Arctic port. She says just Monday that Colonel Michael Brooks—the new Alaska District Commander for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—was in town to discuss the Army Corps’ planned port expansion in Nome. Port project manager Joy Baker says more are on the way before the brief summer season ends.

“We do need to get more folks to come to Nome,” Baker said, cautioning that any visitors “are obviously going to visit other locations in then Arctic as well. Myself, the mayor, the city manager are in constant communication with a variety folks at various levels in the state, federal government, private industry, and our legislators, pushing the development of the Arctic facility at Nome.”

Baker and Mayor Michels both point to a November meeting in Washington, D.C. for the next move on Nome’s port expansion. That’s when the Corps’ draft plan will officially be delivered for review—before moving on to Civil Works Review Board and, eventually, going to Congress to look for funding.

Until then, Baker said work continues apace at the port on the Middle Dock expansion. She said the contractor drove the last sheet pile last week and is backfilling the construction now.

“Things have gone very well with this project, mother nature has been very good to these guys,” Baker said. “We expect the majority of the project to be complete by freeze up. It’ll increase our capacity by 50 percent, and we’re very happy it’s going to be in service next summer.”