Couple charged with growing 1,000-plus unlicensed marijuana plants at Birch Bay home

A Whatcom County couple has been charged with running an unlicensed marijuana farm, then replenishing their crop less than three months after sheriff’s deputies seized $1.2 million in cannabis plants and processed pot from their home near Birch Bay.

A sheriff’s deputy, Ryan Rathbun, caught wind of the farm on Oct. 25, when he stopped at a neighboring home while on patrol, according to charging papers filed this week.

A car with two men and a woman inside rolled into the same driveway he’d parked in. The people in the car — all of whom had felony records such as burglary, trafficking in stolen property and vehicular assault — told Rathbun that they worked for Steven Harlin Hovander, 64, and Starlare Hovander, 62, clipping marijuana buds at 3591 Birch Bay-Lynden Road, according to the charges.

So Rathbun and a second deputy drove down the road to the Hovanders’ farm, where there’s a large, green farmers market out front. They smelled “the strong and obvious odor of fresh growing/processed marijuana,” the deputy prosecutor, Dona Bracke, wrote in the charges. In the parking lot the deputies talked to two men who said they lived and worked on the property, clipping buds and working security.

According to the charges, employees at the farm said they worked a Monday-to-Friday schedule, clipping cannabis buds in a back room and helping to process it into a finished product.

One of the deputies spoke with Starlare Hovander over the phone. She insisted she had a valid license to grow marijuana, but when the deputy asked her to come and show it to him, her “cell phone cut out and shut off,” according to the charges. She did not pick up when the deputy tried to call back.

There’s a pending application for Serene Greens, a would-be business at the Hovander address, but no one on Birch Bay-Lynden Drive has been granted a license to grow, process or sell marijuana, according to state Liquor Control Board records.

Superior Court Judge Ira Uhrig signed a warrant to search for illegally grown marijuana on the property. A regional drug task force recovered 395 plants (weighing 184.8 pounds), another 154 pounds of processed marijuana and a few expired medical marijuana licenses for Steve Hovander.

Around New Year’s Eve, deputies noted a strong marijuana smell coming from the property, and two employees confirmed they were still working for the Hovanders. The county sheriff’s office got another search warrant on Jan. 7. They seized 639 plants and a few pounds of “usable marijuana,” according to charging papers. They also noted what appeared to be a hash oil lab in one building. Forty-five plants were left behind, because along with the marijuana, they found three legitimate prescriptions. Under state law, medical cannabis patients can own up to 15 growing plants.

This isn’t the first time Steve and Starlare have been accused of running an illegal marijuana grow. They were arrested in May 2011 when sheriff’s deputies got an anonymous tip about a marijuana grow op in one of three A-frame cabins at 10453 Mount Baker Highway. Once deputies got a search warrant, 256 plants were seized. Five medical marijuana cards were found in the home: two expired, one for someone who had died, and one each for Steve and Star. Inside the cabin deputies noted extension cords had melted and outlets had burned out because of how much power the grow op used. While that case was pending, one of the A-frame cabins burned, a total loss, and a second cabin was damaged by flames.

Eventually in April 2013, they waived their right to a jury trial and let Judge Uhrig decide if they were guilty based on police reports.He found both of them guilty of manufacturing a controlled substance, and ordered three months of jail, or jail alternatives. The sentences were delayed while they appealed. State court records suggest the appeal is ongoing.

The Hovanders have no other felony convictions. They’re now charged with three felonies: two counts of illegal manufacturing of marijuana with intent to distribute and unlawful use of a building for drug purposes.

As of Friday, Jan. 16, Steve and Star Hovander were out of jail on $7,500 bond. Two listed phone numbers were disconnected as of this week. No one answered when a Herald reporter called a third listed number: It rang and went to a default answering machine message.

In the ’90s, Steve Hovander co-owned the Chandelier restaurant near Glacier, at the site of what’s now the restaurant Chair 9. Hovander and his sister surrendered the deed to the property, in lieu of foreclosure, a few months before the Chandelier burned to the ground in 1999.

More recently, the Hovanders owned the Holy Smoke tavern, an old church remodeled as a biker bar at 8794 Kendall Road. The tavern was sold off in 2009, and it has since been reconverted into a church.