By Don Nelson

A divided Winthrop Town Council denied an appeal of the town planner’s decision to prohibit the retail sale of marijuana in the Horizon Flats area at its April 16 meeting.

Austin Lott, who is seeking to operate a retail marijuana outlet at a Horizon Flats location, had appealed planner Rocklynn Culp’s determination that the area’s current light industrial zoning doesn’t permit such a retail use.

After a public hearing and some discussion, a motion by council member Mort Banasky to support Lott’s appeal was defeated by a 3-2 vote. Council member Michael Strulic joined Banasky in supporting Lott’s appeal, while council members Rick Northcott, Gaile Bryant-Cannon and Jessica Sheehan voted to reject the appeal and support Culp’s ruling. Mayor Sue Langdalen indicated in her comments that she supported Culp’s decision as well.

Lott said this week that he is looking into his legal options, which may include appealing the council’s decision to Okanogan County Superior Court, but said he wants to talk with an attorney who specializes in land use issues before proceeding.

At last week’s meeting, Culp explained her rationale for determining that the Horizon Flats area’s current light industrial zoning doesn’t permit such a retail use. Culp, who is also the town’s zoning administrator, said in a letter to Lott that she decided his proposed operation is “most closely akin to liquor stores,” and therefore not an allowable use.

In his appeal, Lott had argued that his operation should be permitted based on existing allowed uses, which include some “auxiliary” retail sales operations. Lott contended that Culp’s decision was based on “an overly narrow view of the issue.” He said that a marijuana retail shop fits the description of an “agricultural market,” which would be allowed under current zoning.

At the council hearing, Lott reiterated his contention that marijuana is an agricultural product whose growth and processing are allowed in the Horizon Flats area. “Why can’t we sell it in the same zone?” he asked.

“I haven’t heard a good reason why it [marijuana retail sales] can’t go up there yet,” Lott said.

In public testimony, Ardis Bynum said that marijuana retail sales belong in an area zoned for such businesses, and that it should not be allowed in Horizon Flats.

Laurie Lott told the council that marijuana is “a legal commodity that he [Austin Lott] is trying to sell in a legal way,” and supported the appeal of Culp’s finding.

Roxie Miller, a former member of the Winthrop Planning Commission, told the council that “if you make this decision [to reverse Culp’s determination], you should make a zoning change” to be consistent with the town’s previous planning efforts.

Carol Fontaine told the council that Lott should be allowed to sell marijuana in his chosen location, a building his family owns, because “there is a ton of retail business up there” already. She said the council would have to take a “fairly subjective” view to not allow retails sales the Horizon Flats location.

Brad Martin, who lives in the Horizon Flats neighborhood, said that any marijuana operation will have a negative effect on the community.

Lott responded that marijuana sales could “temporize” any perceived negative impacts by generating tax revenues for the town.

Council member Northcott said he believes there are better, more visible places in town for a retail marijuana sales outlet. Lott responded that, because his proposed location is away from the main flow of visitor traffic, “objectively it’s the best place.”

Banasky said she thought Lott “made a really good case” and that retail sales seem to fit within the definition of an agricultural market. Strulic said he also interpreted retails sales as consistent with an agricultural market, and supported granting Lott’s appeal.

Mayor Langdalen said she didn’t think the town should treat Lott as a “special case” and make an exception to its zoning code just because Lott has a location in mind.

Lott said this week that “I don’t feel I got a fair trial, as it were … I haven’t gotten a satisfactory answer so far.”

Lott added that because of uncertainty about the state’s process for determining who will eventually be granted licenses to grow, process and sell marijuana, it may be July before he knows if he will be able to launch his business.