Board wants time to consider stricter zoning controls

By Marcy Stamper

The Okanogan County commissioners have placed a six-month moratorium on new marijuana operations to prevent people from getting in under current rules as the county considers stricter controls in a new zoning code.

The unanimous resolution, signed March 8, cites concerns about inadequate regulations for land use, complaints from the public about the location of marijuana operations and a lack of response from the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (WSLCB).

“The BOCC [board of county commissioners] has concerns that marijuana operations that are incompatible with adjoining and adjacent residential uses may be vested and sited by the WSLCB prior to the adoption of stricter local land use controls,” they say in the resolution.

The conditional permits would not be retroactive, and the moratorium would not affect people who already have completed their infrastructure or begun building, said County Commissioner Ray Campbell last week.

At present, marijuana is treated like any other crop in the county, meaning it can be grown or processed almost anywhere, without a special permit. Changes proposed in the zoning ordinance would require a marijuana operation to get a conditional-use permit (CUP), which comes before the county’s hearing examiner and involves public input. The county could impose mitigations or protections before issuing the permit.

This is not the first time the commissioners have considered a CUP for marijuana — in fact, that was their starting point when the state first began issuing licenses for growing, processing and selling marijuana more than two years ago.

After a public hearing in 2013, the commissioners decided the state had already imposed so many regulations that it “was hard to imagine what regulations we can add,” County Commissioner Sheilah Kennedy said at the time.

Campbell said last week that they had also been advised by the Washington State Association of Counties that the state would implement adequate controls. But once the new industry got underway, “it was clearly outside anything we imagined,” he said.

Because state law requires local review of any new license applications, Campbell said county staffers have spent hours researching applications for nonexistent parcel numbers. They have also received complaints about buildings erected without a permit.

“We knew we had to condition uses so there is a semblance of control,” said Campbell, who said the county has received complaints from neighbors of existing farms about odor, lights on all night in rural areas, and multiple growers clustered on the same parcel.

“There has been no cooperation from the state,” although the WSLCB has started requiring accurate parcel information, he said.

“It’s the wisest thing to do — and it’s legal — to put a moratorium in place until we finish the zoning ordinance,” said Campbell.

Unexpected action

Although the commissioners had considered CUPs two years ago, enacting a moratorium was a surprise to some. It was adopted the morning after a scheduled discussion on marijuana that had been called at the request of Jeremy Moberg, CEO of CannaSol Farms, a marijuana grower and processor in Riverside. A dozen members of the public also attended, and some complained about existing marijuana operations as they waited for Moberg, who was 20 minutes late, said Campbell.

Moberg said this week that he has been talking with the commissioners and Okanogan County Planning Director Perry Huston over the past two years and had been told there were no changes in the county’s approach to marijuana. He said he learned only two weeks ago about the proposal for conditional permits in the zoning code.

In their discussion last week, Moberg talked to the commissioners about the economic benefits of marijuana and urged them to create several zones where marijuana operations are permitted outright, without special permits. He said such zones could encompass 50 to 60 percent of existing farms and processors.

At the meeting, Huston and the commissioners urged Moberg to follow the established process for the zoning review and to provide his comments to the planning commission. “You’re talking to the wrong board. Those recommendations should go to the planning commission,” Campbell told Moberg.

Moberg was frustrated that the representatives from the county’s marijuana industry had not been at the table when the county looked at changes to the zoning code. “This was buried in the 122-page zoning code. No one from the industry was ever invited — it just baffles me,” he said this week.

The county has been accepting public input on the latest draft of the zoning code, which is 154 pages, since it was released in October.

“People are confusing a moratorium with a ban,” said Huston. “It’s a temporary moratorium because the rules will change. It’s to prevent vesting.”

Moratoriums are usually adopted without a legal notice, which Huston said would be “somewhat counterproductive,” since the purpose was to prevent a rush of people from getting in at the last minute and becoming vested under the old rules.

A member of the public who attended the commissioners’ discussion last week urged the commissioners to address light pollution and the required fences, which he called an “eyesore.” He suggested that the stench of drying marijuana could be eliminated through proper filtration. These operations should be in a commercial zone where they won’t affect kids and families, he said.

While violations of the county’s building and zoning codes are misdemeanors, the sheriff doesn’t have the resources to arrest people for being out compliance, said Campbell.

“So we’re left with the producer thumbing his nose at us and the state telling counties, ‘Just handle it yourself,’” said Campbell.

The WSLCB has pursued three violations in the county, one for failure to ensure every plant is traceable. The other two were fined for failure to maintain security and alarm systems.

Economics of marijuana

Moberg questioned whether the commissioners really want the economic benefits of what he described as a highly profitable industry.

His own farm, which Moberg said is the largest in the county and the 11th-largest in the state, has generated $3 million in revenue since opening in 2014. The operation paid half a million in wages just last year — for 20 year-round employees in processing and more than twice that number at the height of the growing season.

CannaSol Farms grows and processes marijuana on 1 acre. “I’ve never heard of generating so much money in so little space,” said Moberg.

There are 54 active licenses — for growers (producers) and 45 processors — in Okanogan County, according to the latest records from the LCB. Another 12 are have been issued to licensed growers or processors who also applied for a second license.

The WSLCB is not accepting any new applications for growers or processors, but has expanded the number of retail licenses available. Okanogan County was issued five potential retail outlets and currently has three.

Statewide, there are 658 active growers, 638 processors, and 262 retailers. Okanogan County leads the state in growers but trails Spokane and King counties for processors.

“Everyone in the state knows the one place you can go is Okanogan,” said Moberg, who fears a major exodus — and corresponding loss of revenue — if the county starts imposing restrictions.

In addition to the conditional permits, the proposed zoning would require all outdoor lighting to be shielded and says marijuana operations must be compatible with the character of the surrounding neighborhood. “Valid and verified complaints from neighbors may be considered as possible reasons for revocation of a permit, or modification of the permitted conditions of approval,” it says.

The draft zoning code also provides for discontinuing all marijuana operations at the end of this year unless they comply with the code.

Moberg fears that requiring a conditional-use permit would open the door to a broader discussion about marijuana. “We’d have to rehash whether we like marijuana or not, and have the NIMBY [not in my backyard] discussions,” he said.

“It’s a big can of worms. It’s legal. I don’t oppose it [marijuana] going on. I just want reasonable conditions. Neighbors can testify before the hearing examiner, and we can look at reasonable conditions to put on these,” said Campbell.

By law, the commissioners must hold a public hearing on the moratorium within 60 days. They have scheduled the hearing for May 3 at 1:30 p.m. in their hearing room in Okanogan.

Zoning review scheduled

The Okanogan County planning commission will conduct a public hearing on all aspects of the proposed zoning code and its environmental impacts — which includes changes to nightly rentals, options for building a second house on a parcel, lot sizes, and the proposed regulations on marijuana — on Monday, March 28, at 7 p.m. in the commissioners’ hearing room in Okanogan. People can provide up to three minutes of verbal testimony at the hearing and can submit written comments to ldavidson@co.okanogan.wa.us.

The commissioners hope that will be planning commission’s final hearing, said County Commissioner Ray Campbell. The next draft will go to the county commissioners for review and their own public hearing. The commissioners expect to adopt a new zoning ordinance this May, according to the moratorium.

Information about the zoning code is available from planner Angie Hubbard at (509) 422-7160 or Planning Director Perry Huston at (509) 422-7218. The working draft of the zoning code, maps and environmental review are available on the Planning Department website at www.okanogancounty.org/planning. Click on the link for “Draft Zoning Code document 10/16/2015.”

The 30-day comment period on the environmental review of zoning ends April 4.