Whatcom County loosens siting rule for marijuana businesses

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDApril 23, 2014 

Marijuana businesses will be able to move into neighborhoods now that the County Council has lifted the most restrictive rule on where they can go in unincorporated Whatcom County.

The council did so by approving a new interim ordinance 6-1 after a public hearing Tuesday, April 22. Councilman Sam Crawford was the lone no vote.

The measure removes a requirement that a pot business be at least 1,000 feet away from homes if the owner wants to go into communities with eight or more residences.

Crawford said he voted no because he wanted to keep the 1,000-foot setback for a cluster of eight or more homes.

Before voting, the council heard from people who said the buffers they did leave in place were arbitrary while other speakers warned them that marijuana use threatened community safety and was dangerous to developing adolescent brains.

"This is no different from alcohol in that it's for adults only," council member Barbara Brenner said in response.

The vote was the latest step taken by the council to regulate recreational marijuana in unincorporated Whatcom County, an effort that has included a 60-day moratorium replaced by siting rules that the council has continued to refine.

State residents voted in 2012, as did Whatcom County residents, to legalize recreational marijuana.

Would-be pot entrepreneurs must obtain a license from the state and meet zoning and other rules in the jurisdictions where they want to do business.

Council member Pete Kremen said the county was "even-keeled" in its approach as it balanced the needs of pot businesses, the desires of voters, and the concerns of community members by coming up with rules that exceeded state requirements.

For example, the council kept the requirement that pot businesses be set back 1,000 feet 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.

Members also kept a 300-foot buffer between such businesses and residences in most areas.

Among the provisions of the interim ordinance approved Tuesday:

-- Eliminate the rule that a pot business be set back 1,000 feet if it's going into an area with eight or more residences, making it possible for marijuana businesses to move into neighborhoods.

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

-- Require 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.

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

The council hadn't set rules specific to incoming marijuana businesses until recent months, upon previous 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 than I-502, or even opt out of the measure.

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.

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

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