File photo by Sue Misao

File photo by Sue Misao

By Marcy Stamper

Okanogan County planning staff have been fielding a barrage of questions regarding the county’s approach to permitting the growing, processing and selling of marijuana.

The county commissioners have proposed requiring a conditional-use permit for any marijuana business, and the county has been taking input on the proposal.

“We have received numerous inquiries – the phone has not stopped ringing for two weeks,” said Ben Rough, senior planner for Okanogan County.

Rough said the calls have been “completely across the board,” coming from people with questions or concerns about the county’s process and from others interested in starting a business.

Okanogan County Planning Director Perry Huston said he had elected not to consider the growing, processing or sale of marijuana as “‘nearly identical’ to any other land use” or agricultural activity currently allowed in unincorporated areas of the county, including the Methow Valley. Huston provided his analysis in a memo to the county planning commission.

The conditional-use permit (CUP) would require the applicant to receive a state license for the marijuana business, although that license would not need to be in hand before the CUP is issued. The county could impose other conditions to ensure compatibility with the county’s comprehensive plan and to “protect the health, morals, and general welfare,” wrote Huston in his memo.

The 30-day window to apply for a state license for any of the three types of marijuana businesses opened Monday (Nov. 18) with 300 applications filed with the Washington State Liquor Control Board by the end of the first day.

 

Some urgency

Huston referred to the “sense of urgency” created by the finite application period in initiating the county’s review process.

Jeremy Moberg, president of the Okanogan Cannabis Association, who plans to apply for a license to grow and process marijuana, said he acutely felt that urgency. Because Moberg’s business plan calls for growing marijuana outdoors and in greenhouses, he is scrambling to install the necessary infrastructure before the ground freezes so he can begin agricultural production in the spring if he is granted a license.

Moberg, who was instrumental in persuading the Liquor Control Board to allow the crop to be grown outdoors, is concerned that a state license will not be issued until after a final inspection, requiring applicants to invest time and money in infrastructure before they receive a green light for the business.

Washington’s application process includes several phases, including a review of business and operations plans and background checks, so if an applicant passes those stages, there is “reasonable assurance” that a license will be issued, according to Mikhail Carpenter, a spokesperson for the Liquor Control Board.

Carpenter acknowledged that the time frame is tight and could present difficulties for some prospective growers, but said the Liquor Board had stressed from the outset that the rule-making process would be time-consuming. “Unfortunately when creating something that doesn’t exist in the world, it takes some time,” he said.

 

Local sites?

Okanogan County’s current district-use chart permits “farms for raising all crops” in unincorporated Okanogan County, including the Methow Valley. Produce stands now require a conditional-use permit in unincorporated areas of the Methow Valley but are permitted in the rest of the county.

Cities and towns have their own land-use regulations. Winthrop officials have said they will treat applications for marijuana operations as they do any other business, and Twisp intends to apply existing zoning codes.

Omak changed its zoning ordinance to prohibit any land use that would violate federal, state or local laws, effectively banning any marijuana business in the city limits, but the Liquor Board maintains that nothing in the recreational marijuana law allows a local jurisdiction to opt out, according to Liquor Control Board spokesperson Brian Smith.

The Association of Washington Cities has noted that if a jurisdiction prohibits all marijuana businesses, the jurisdiction could be sued by a person with a state-issued marijuana license who is denied the opportunity to conduct business there. On the other hand, jurisdictions that allow marijuana businesses could theoretically face legal action by the federal government for facilitating illegal drug activities, according to the association.

The Liquor Board has asked the state attorney general to issue an opinion as to whether the law permits local jurisdictions to exclude marijuana businesses, said Carpenter.

 

Plenty of process

If the county requires a conditional-use permit for marijuana businesses, the application would entail a detailed project description, an analysis of its environmental impact, notification of adjacent landowners, and a public hearing.

“A CUP review is not a forum to gauge neighborhood opposition to the siting of a land use activity. The presence of opposition to a proposal … is not in and of itself grounds to deny a CUP application. Conversely the presence of widespread support is not grounds for approval,” wrote Huston in his memo about the proposed zoning amendments.

The CUP application would come before the county’s recently appointed hearing examiner.

People may comment on the proposed requirement for a CUP before the Okanogan County planning commission on Monday (Nov. 25), at 7 p.m. in Okanogan. The county commissioners will conduct their own review of the proposed changes and make the final decision.

For more information or a copy of the revised zoning code, contact Rough at (509) 422-7122 or brough@co.okanogan.wa.us.