Some say rules for farms are still too lax

By Marcy Stamper

By some measures, marijuana has been a booming business in Okanogan County. The county has the second-highest number of growers and processors in the state, accounting for 8.5 percent of all licensed operations. Only Spokane County has more, with about 11 percent of the total.

But some people have found that boom can intrude on neighbors of those farms through odors, light pollution or noise.

So while in 2013, the Okanogan County commissioners decided to treat marijuana like any other crop, last year, the county temporarily banned new cannabis businesses while the commissioners contemplated restrictions to address these complaints — and still provide certainty for the industry.

The moratorium was lifted in February with the adoption of an interim set of regulations while a new advisory committee looked into the issue. The committee, with representatives from the industry and the general public, was tasked with coming up with guidelines to address the concerns of both the public and marijuana businesses.

The committee sent its recommendations to the county’s planning commission, which finalized its own revisions last week.

The new rules would prohibit producers (farms) and processors altogether in some zones, but let them set up operation without any special permits in other areas. Some zones would require conditional-use permits, which allow for public input and let the county impose certain restrictions to minimize the impact on neighbors or the environment.

Under the proposed regulations, all new farms would have to meet basic requirements for water adequacy, shielded lighting, and noise and dust control. Existing operations would have to come into compliance by 2021.

The proposed ordinance sets regulations depending on the underlying zone. New marijuana farms in the Methow Review District — from Mazama to Gold Creek — would require a conditional-use permit.

Marijuana could be grown without any special permit in some zones, with minimum lots from one to 20 acres. The farms would be prohibited in some commercial zones, but allowed, with conditions, in others. They’d also be banned in zones including agricultural-residential, airport, and neighborhood use.

There would be no growing — indoors or out — in suburban residential zones, where lot sizes can be as small as 1/5 acre, but processing and retail facilities would be permitted there with a conditional-use permit.

By state law, outdoor marijuana grows must have an 8-foot sight-obscuring fence. The county is adding more requirements — fences would have to be made of neutral-toned materials and couldn’t be built from oriented strand board (OSB) or repurposed materials like tires, fruit crates or rubbish.

An outdoor grow would have to be at least 1,000 feet from a school or public park, but a processing facility or indoor grow could be within 100 feet.

Need for stricter rules?

Some say these rules won’t address the considerable impacts marijuana farms can have on neighbors or on future economic development the county, particularly in a tourist-dependent economy like the Methow Valley.

Many farms have adequate buffers and technology to minimize the impact on neighbors. But the regulations don’t take into account the varied business models as the cannabis industry evolves.

The county code requires shielded and downcast lighting, but one person who sent comments to the advisory committee said the regulations wouldn’t block light pollution from inside translucent greenhouses. “The amount of light here can be extreme, lighting up entire hillsides,” she said. “I wake up in the middle of the night because it’s so light out that I think it’s morning.”

She recommended requiring black-out shades. Greenhouses also can be noisy because of fans that run 24/7, she said. “There’s a solution — it just needs to be regulated,” she said.

Several people have said that the regulations to control odor aren’t stringent enough. “The accommodations for odors are MINIMAL for new outdoor cannabis operations limited to setbacks… and NON-EXISTENT for preexisting cannabis operations [capitalization in original],” said one person in comments to the county.

Moreover, some growers stagger their planting, meaning that the peak blooming period — when the odor is most intense — could be spread out over five or six months, not just the summer, according to an individual who lives near a marijuana producer.

While the state issues licenses for operations up to 30,000 square feet, Okanogan County’s regulations don’t prevent a property owner from leasing to several licensees, meaning that there could be half a dozen farms crowded into the same space. “There’s nothing preventing a mega-field of 50 pot farms all in one place,” said a local resident who’s worried about unchecked proliferation.

Planning Commission member Gina McCoy, who represents the Methow Valley, was concerned that the revised regulations are too lax to prevent cannabis businesses infringing on the property rights of adjacent landowners. Regardless of the zone, a marijuana farm or processor could be just 25 feet from the neighboring lot line, she said.

“For a start-up operation on a tight budget, I am concerned that those 1-acre lots could be an attractive option, regardless of impacts to neighbors,” she said.

McCoy abstained when the planning commission voted on the new draft.

George Zittel, a member of the cannabis advisory committee, sent written comments to the county when he was unable to attend a meeting. “Odor is a problem. The only way to mitigate that is with a buffer. I suggest somewhere between 500 to 750 feet,” Zittel said. He said he’d polled people and most supported that distance. “No number you pick will make everyone happy. I believe it is imperative that a buffer is established,” he wrote.

Industrial hemp

The county’s draft code would allow industrial hemp farms only on the Colville Reservation (called the minimum requirement district in the county zone code). The state approved a pilot research project for industrial hemp farms last year. The Colville Reservation obtained one of the first three permits to grow hemp.

Hemp farms would still require a conditional permit and would need to be located at least 10 miles from an existing marijuana farm.

Planning for the future

Since recreational marijuana was legalized by Washington voters four years ago, more than 100 licensed farms have sprung up in Okanogan County. Some have since closed, so there are currently 91 active licenses for producers.

Noting the appeal of the county to cannabis growers because of its climate — both its weather and its regulations — a member of the public urged county officials and residents to take the long view. “In the Methow Valley, the economic well-being is from tourism. If the valley gets a reputation for being a stinky place, people will go elsewhere,” said a concerned citizen who lives near a marijuana grow.

“Imagine 20, 30, 40 years from now — what’s an environment of pot farms that will make sense in the valley? It’s part of the balance of living together,” she said.

For more information or a copy of the proposed regulations and the chart that lists permitted and conditional uses, contact natural resource planner Angie Hubbard at (509) 422-7090.

The planning commission’s draft goes to the county commissioners, who will take more public comment. The county commissioners have scheduled a public hearing on Monday, Aug. 27, at 1:30 p.m. People can provide up to five minutes of input at the meeting or in advance to Laleña Johns at ljohns@co.okanogan.wa.us.