Whatcom County considering stricter siting rules for marijuana businesses

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMarch 13, 2014 

Stricter rules for where marijuana businesses can go in unincorporated Whatcom County could be in place before the end of the month.

The Whatcom County Council will next hold a March 25 public hearing on the proposed rules, which would last for six months.

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

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.

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

County Councilman Ken Mann was troubled by the uncertainty the county was creating for would-be pot entrepreneurs.

"I'm really torn up about what we've done with the moratorium and the interim (ordinance)," he said during a council discussion Tuesday, March 11. "We talk about economic development and how important certainty is. We're violating that principle times ten."

The temporary ordinance would last for six months, unless extended, to give the Planning Commission time to review the rules later this year. It also would apply to medical marijuana operations.

The proposed rules for growers, processors 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.

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 or the owner of the residence waives that setback.

-- 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 the property line of 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.

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

Also, pot growers and processors would be able to operate in the same zones - which business owners said made more sense - instead of being split into different places.

The proposed ordinance went before the council's Natural Resources Committee first on Tuesday, and members heard from some in the audience who expressed frustration at the wait and urged them to let the growers get going.

(The state has yet to issue licenses for most growers and processors, save six. It also still has to hold a lottery for retail licenses.)

Attorney Heather Wolf, who represents growers and processors, had differing thoughts about the county's proposed ordinance.

"I think it's good that they're expanding the zoning where the production and processing will be allowed. I think that makes sense," Wolf said. "I am concerned about the setback requirements. I don't think it's good to create more restrictive setbacks at this point."

As for fears about crime, Wolf said: "I think that one of the purposes of the new laws regulating marijuana is to eliminate the criminal operations. The purpose being to legitimize it, regulate it, tax it.

"And so when you thwart the state licensing regime by making it difficult or impossible for these businesses to have a legitimate presence, I think you're just exacerbating the illegal problem."

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

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