Whatcom County OKs stricter siting rules for marijuana businesses - for now

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMarch 26, 2014 

The County Council has approved stricter rules for where marijuana businesses can go in unincorporated Whatcom County, despite an outcry from those trying to enter the state's newest business.

The council voted to do so unanimously on Tuesday, March 25, even though members said they didn't like aspects of the temporary ordinance, which they will revisit in two weeks. But they said they wanted to allow an estimated 30-plus businesses that could proceed under the new permitting rules to be able to do so even as those businesses await state licenses.

The temporary ordinance replaces a 60-day moratorium on new applications for marijuana businesses that the council enacted Feb. 11 in light of concerns about crime and after Sheriff Bill Elfo expressed concern about being able to patrol remote parts of the county.

Before they voted, the council heard from would-be business owners who expressed frustration at the uncertainty caused by the county's actions at what they called a late date, and setbacks for pot businesses that they felt were arbitrary and would sharply curb the number that could set up shop in the unincorporated parts of the county.

They reminded the council that voters approved Initiative 502 -- the 2012 ballot measure that legalized recreational marijuana in Washington -- that they spent time and hundreds of thousands of dollars starting their legal ventures under the county's previous rules and urged them to let pot growers and processors get going.

"I'm sitting here with a big question mark," said Tom Armstrong with Sideways Green out of Acme, adding that the county had previously told him the location was OK, as did the state. "And now the county wants to say it's not OK? How is that possible?"

Heather Wolf, a Bellingham attorney representing growers and processors, said the county's ordinance would make the sheriff's response times more difficult by pushing pot business further out into isolated parts of the county.

They reminded the council that the state Liquor Control Board, which is overseeing implementation of recreational pot, already is requiring security measures that include fences and cameras, and urged members to allow them to start businesses that could employ people and support their families.

While the majority of speakers opposed the county's measure, some did speak out against having proposed pot businesses near them, including in the Ferndale area and the Clearbrook community west of Sumas. They said they were concerned about crime, having such businesses near children, and protecting the rural nature of their communities.

Council members were considering 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 I-502.

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 like any other agricultural use. That advice was given prior to the attorney general's opinion.

The 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.

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

Among provisions the ordinance will 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.

It was the setbacks that some County Council members, including Carl Weimer and Ken Mann, said they didn't like.

"I am not excited about this. I am conflicted," Mann said.

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

But the ordinance also will allow pot growing and processing operations to go into places zoned light-impact industrial, which had been a request from some pot businesses. It will 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 will be able to operate in the same place - something business owners said made more sense - instead of being split into different locations, as was the case with some of the zoning.

The state has yet to issue licenses for most growers and processors, save 12. It also still has to hold a lottery for retail licenses.

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

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