Whatcom County might lift some siting rules for marijuana businesses

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDApril 9, 2014 

The Whatcom County Council could lift a requirement that a marijuana business be at least 1,000 feet away from homes if the owner wants to go into communities with eight or more residences.

That move would lift the most restrictive rule on where recreational marijuana businesses can go in unincorporated Whatcom County.

The council passed an interim ordinance for such businesses on March 25 to replace a 60-day emergency moratorium that was nearing its end, but council members indicated then that they wanted to revisit siting rules in two weeks.

The changes they discussed Tuesday, April 8, are part of a new proposed interim ordinance headed for an April 22 public hearing.

"It's come a long way toward supporting this new business that's a legitimate business," councilman Ken Mann said. "We did reduce a lot of the restrictions. I'm proud of that. We didn't go quite as far on some as I had hoped."

Proposed changes include:

-- Eliminating the rule that a pot business be set back 1,000 feet if it's going into an area with eight or more residences.

Would-be pot business owners, and some council members, have said the spacing requirement was too restrictive.

"They definitely went in the right direction with a number of things," said Heather Wolf, a Bellingham attorney representing marijuana growers and processors. "It was very helpful to remove that eight residences within 1,000 feet density restriction."

-- Requiring an administrative use permit and a signed, notarized document from neighboring property owners if a marijuana business wants to be closer than 300 feet from an existing residence, unless the home is on the same property as the business.

"As a practical matter, it's not an easy task to get multiple waivers," Wolf said.

-- Limiting marijuana retail stores to 2,500 square feet in a neighborhood commercial zone.

-- Adding control measures for odor, parking, traffic and lighting to all zoned areas that don't now have them.

-- Limiting marijuana operations to 2,000 square feet in some rural zones, unless they're located in existing buildings. The idea is to keep the biggest growers or processors - those that can be as large as 21,000 square feet - from going into areas with smaller lot sizes.

Wolf had hoped the council would lift more restrictions, including the 1,000-foot setback from the property line of community centers, and reduce the 300-foot separation from residences in most areas.

She said state Initiative 502, approved by voters in 2012, already has established a 1,000-foot buffer for places where minors gather, and expressed concern that a community center can be widely defined.

"This extra distance requirement, I don't think there's a need for it," Wolf said.

The proposed interim ordinance would, however, eliminate the community center and residential buffers for marijuana retailers going into commercial zones.

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 state attorney general's opinion in January that local jurisdictions could impose stricter limits, or even opt out of I-502.

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 would apply to medical marijuana operations.

Some residents, including in the Ferndale area and in the Clearbrook community west of Sumas, have told the council they are opposed to proposed pot businesses near them. They said they were concerned about crime, having such businesses near children, and protecting the rural nature of their communities.

County Councilman Sam Crawford said he was sympathetic to marijuana business applicants, but noted that people should remember that residents were there first.

"It's the marijuana businesses that are moving in after the fact," he said.

And while it remains to be seen whether fears linking crime and marijuana businesses will be realized, "right now, I think we should err on the side of caution," Crawford said.

IF YOU GO

What: A public hearing for the Whatcom County Council's proposed interim ordinance on where recreational marijuana businesses can go.

When: Tuesday, April 22. The council meets at 7 p.m.

Where: County Council chambers, 311 Grand Ave., Bellingham.

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

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