Whatcom County Council protests location of marijuana grower near Sumas

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDFebruary 8, 2014 

The Washington State Liquor Control Board is still months away from issuing licenses for recreational pot businesses, an agency manager wrote Jan. 21 to a Whatcom County resident who was worried about a proposed growing and processing site near residences in her small community.

"We have no idea when licenses will be issued at this point. I can tell you though that we are nowhere near being close to issuing any licenses. Especially the producers," Elizabeth Lehman, the agency's customer service manager, wrote in an email to Clearbrook resident Cheeta Stremler.

Clearbrook is a cluster of homes west of Sumas. Residents there and in the surrounding area are concerned about the proposed Delta#Nine operation at 9314 Swanson Road, Suite A, and have asked the Whatcom County Council for help.

"My biggest concern for Clearbrook is safety for the children and community as a whole," Stremler said in an interview. "Several different law enforcement agencies have informed us of increased crime in drug-growing areas."

Meanwhile, liquor board spokesman Brian Smith contradicted Lehman's statement. He said the timeline remained the same for issuing licenses - noting that he has said all along that would occur in late February or March.

"We haven't changed in our message that we expect to begin issuing licenses in March and stores will be opening up in June," he said Friday, Feb. 7. "We are wading through a huge number of applications. I think it's something like 2,000 more applications than we have restaurants in Washington state, and it's all at once."

The agency has been tasked with overseeing the implementation of Initiative 502. Approved by state voters in 2012, the measure legalized growing, processing and selling marijuana.

The board has received 7,038 applications from those seeking to enter the newest business in the state, with 309 of those in Whatcom County alone.

"We do have some major challenges that we're working through," Smith said. "Our estimate is still the same. It's not an official timeline. It's not like we're on a deadline."

In her response to Stremler, Lehman referred to the statewide cap of 2 million square feet on recreational marijuana farms and gardens.

With no limit on the total number of growers, questions have been raised about whether there would be enough space for most to run an economically viable operation.

"We only allotted a certain amount of square footage of plant canopy, and will not be issuing the first license until we decide how much each producer will be allowed to grow," Lehman wrote. "We are talking months away still."

CLEARBROOK PLEA

Clearbrook residents are worried that Delta#Nine will be operating within 500 feet of where 15 children live and play. They cite concerns that include proximity to residences and the U.S.-Canada border as well as possible crime.

"While we have been told there will be security, we as a community feel this will lead to an increase in crime as well as a decrease in our property values," they wrote in their petition to the County Council.

Delta#Nine representatives didn't return calls for comment.

In response, the County Council wrote to the liquor board on Jan. 31, objecting to the location and saying members didn't know they could "put limitations on these operations" until the state Attorney General's opinion.

That Jan. 16 opinion stated that local governments could impose stricter limitations, or even opt out of I-502.

"This is not an objection to the legalization of grow operations. It is a plea to the state, from where this originated, to protect our county from the unintended consequences of opening up the application process before letting local jurisdictions know we have the ability to limit certain risks," the County Council's letter to the liquor board stated.

Until then, the council was told by the county's prosecuting attorney that a grow operation must be treated like any other agricultural operation, according to the letter.

Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo also expressed his concerns to the liquor board, saying the location was remote and in a patrol area of more than 300 square miles normally staffed by one deputy.

"We just feel there are better places for it," said Clearbrook resident Leonard Smit, who has children.

The County Council will discuss zoning of marijuana businesses during a Natural Resources Committee hearing on Tuesday, Feb. 11.

It's unclear what the council could do.

I-502 requires a 1,000-foot-buffer around parks, libraries, schools and other public places where children could gather. The liquor board also has said it will not issue a recreational marijuana license for residences, but Smith said the board will issue licenses to qualified businesses that are compliant with those requirements and local regulations.

On its face, Delta#Nine seems to be meeting those requirements.

"The problem there is the zoning is agriculture. There are plenty of residences in agriculture zoning," county council member Barbara Brenner said.

For her part, Stremler hopes the county will enact some regulations, such as buffers and setbacks as they have for other businesses in the agriculture industry.

"I'm just hoping that we can do something to specifically not allow it in places that are little communities out in the middle of nowhere, where there are people living, and where our own sheriff has said he can't adequately take care of it," Brenner said.

Reach Kie Relyea at 360-715-2234 or kie.relyea@bellinghamherald.com .

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