Whatcom County to consider stricter siting rules for marijuana businesses

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMarch 7, 2014 

BELLINGHAM - Stricter rules for where marijuana businesses can go in unincorporated Whatcom County will be considered by the County Council on Tuesday, March 11.

The proposed rules for growers, producers and retailers are meant to protect surrounding residences and communities from the threat of crime because pot businesses might have large amounts of cash on site, according to the county.

Sheriff Bill Elfo has said he's concerned about being able to patrol remote parts of the county where some pot operators would like to locate.

"Marijuana-related operations are vulnerable to robbery and crimes of violence, as evidenced by the actual robberies and violence that have occurred at state legal marijuana medical sites within Whatcom County and elsewhere," the proposed ordinance states.

Council members are looking at the county marijuana regulations after the state attorney general in January issued an opinion saying local jurisdictions could impose stricter limits, or even opt out of Initiative 502, the 2012 ballot measure that legalized recreational marijuana in Washington.

If approved, the interim ordinance would last for six months, unless extended, to give the Planning Commission time to review the ordinance later this year. Among provisions the ordinance would require:

-- A pot business to be at least 300 feet away from a residence, unless the home is on the same property as the business.

-- A pot business to be set back 1,000 feet if it wants to go into an area with eight or more residences.

-- A 1,000-foot setback from community centers, which includes religious institutions such as churches, because many provide schools or daycares and are places where youths could gather.

-- A ban on marijuana-growing businesses in urban residential zones.

Councilwoman Barbara Brenner seemed to approve of the new restrictions.

"I don't want to see grow operations in areas where it would be difficult for sheriff's officers to be able to adequately patrol it, and where there are lots of people living in a small area," she said.

But the ordinance also would allow pot growing and processing operations to go into places zoned light-impact industrial, which had been a request from some would-be pot entrepreneurs. It would require businesses in industrial parks to control the odor so marijuana couldn't be smelled outside the walls of their operation.

Of the 58 non-industrial locations in unincorporated Whatcom County with applications before state regulators, about 21 could operate under the proposed ordinance.

And there are six marijuana businesses located in an industrial zone that applied to the state for a license.

The proposal received some praise from Cheeta Stremler, one of the Clearbrook residents who went before the County Council over concerns about Delta#Nine - a marijuana grower and processor that would have operated within 500 feet of where 15 children live and play, neighbors have said. Clearbrook is a cluster of homes west of Sumas.

"It is a good common-sense approach," Stremler said. "I am glad that the council has taken measures to protect our community and many other small communities like ours in our county."

Three tenant-improvement applications for marijuana businesses already have been submitted to the county, planning staff have said, and they would be processed under the current rules. Delta#Nine isn't one of them.

Those businesses have not yet received a license to operate from the state.

The proposed county measure, which also would apply to new medical marijuana operations, will be discussed in the council's Natural Resources Committee and, depending on what happens, could be forwarded to the full council for consideration Tuesday night.

If approved after a March 25 public hearing, the ordinance would replace a 60-day moratorium on new applications for marijuana businesses that the council enacted Feb. 11.

The council hadn't set rules specific to incoming marijuana businesses, upon advice from the county prosecutor to treat the growing or processing of marijuana as an agricultural use.

IF YOU GO

What: A proposed interim ordinance regulating where marijuana businesses can go in unincorporated Whatcom County will go before the County Council's Natural Resources Committee.

When: The committee meets at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, March 11.

Where: County Council chambers, 311 Grand Ave.

Read the interim ordinance.

Reach KIE RELYEA at kie.relyea@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2234.

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