Public complaints lead to review of ordinances
By Ann McCreary
A moratorium on new applications for marijuana operations has been imposed by the Okanogan County commissioners, in response to complaints from the public as well as from people involved in the marijuana industry.
The moratorium, approved by commissioners on June 26, places a six-month hold on consideration of any applications for new or expanded marijuana growing, producing, processing or retail operations in the unincorporated county.
The resolution imposing the moratorium calls for appointment of an advisory committee of “cannabis industry representatives and other interested members of the public” to review county ordinances related to marijuana regulations.
The committee would be charged with proposing revisions to “to avoid the adverse impacts of siting cannabis operations in area where they are not compatible with surrounding land use and to increase the guidance and certainty for those applying for cannabis permits.”
A public hearing on the moratorium is scheduled for July 25 at 1:30 p.m. in the commissioners’ auditorium in Okanogan.
Commissioners said the moratorium was prompted by “a proliferation of cannabis operations” in the unincorporated areas of the county since recreational marijuana was legalized statewide in 2014.
A year ago, in July 2016, the county adopted zoning codes that included regulations on siting and operating marijuana operations, but the ordinances have not proved adequate, said Perry Huston, county planning director.
That has frustrated people living near marijuana growing and producing operations, as well as people involved in those operations, Huston said.
“We’ve had complaints from neighbors about odor, lights, noise, traffic and activity of grow operations. They are feeling some frustration that these aren’t being adequately dealt with,” Huston said.
“At least two growers have talked to commissioners and they’re concerned. They applied [for a county permit] and from their perspective they had met requirements. But the perception of the hearing examiner was they had not. They blamed it on lack of clarity or specificity in the zoning code,” Huston said.
The commissioners are looking to the advisory committee to come up with new regulatory approaches that mitigate impacts on neighbors, particularly from marijuana growing operations, and provide more guidance and certainty for people applying for marijuana operation permits.
“Right now in the existing code you could put a marijuana operation in any zone with a conditional use permit. But not all zones are created equal,” Huston said. “Obviously there’s a lot of difference between industrial zones … and residential zones.”
County Commissioner Andy Hover said he’s received complaints from Methow Valley residents and other county residents about marijuana growing operations.
“People are concerned about light pollution, noise pollution and overall appearance of the grows. If you only get one or two who say it’s unsightly, that’s fine. But when you start dealing with it on a daily basis, then it starts getting to the point that it’s taking resources away, staff time,” from other county business, Hover said.
“I have one [growing operation] down the road from me,” said Hover, who lives on Wolf Creek Road near Winthrop.
He said the grower has worked to mitigate smell and light pollution, and built a “creative” fence around the operation.
“There are a lot of people out there doing this that are doing a good job. And there are people not doing a good job,” Hover said.
He said he has heard complaints from growers about the lack of concrete guidelines for people applying for a conditional use permit to operate a marijuana growing or producing business.
“The state has a lot of requirements, but they are geared toward the security of the site and some level of screening,” Huston said. State codes regulate the distance of marijuana operations from schools, churches and playgrounds, for instance, but are silent with regard to distance from homes, he said.
“That’s best dealt with by local zoning,” Huston said. Most complaints from the public are in connection with growing operations, rather than retail businesses, he said. Commissioners included retail operations in the moratorium on new applications, but could consider removing them from the moratorium after the public hearing.
After marijuana growing was legalized in 2014, Okanogan County regulated it like other agricultural crops, Huston said. “The belief at the time was the state was regulating it and that would be enough,” he said.
However, county officials found state regulations were not sufficient and established a moratorium in 2016 on new marijuana operation applications to allow time to adopt regulations as part of the county’s zoning code. Public hearings on the zoning proposals drew large crowds.
Huston said there are two or three applications in progress that have successfully met existing county requirements that will be allowed to move forward. County commissioners could extend the moratorium beyond six months, but would be required to hold another public hearing, Huston said.
Hover said other Washington counties have had to grapple with similar issues related to marijuana operations and have considered or adopted “extreme measures” such as limiting growing to indoor operations only, he said.
“As far as I know, we [Okanogan County] are one of the last bastions of easy pot growing,” Hover said. “People are flooding in, and that gives rise to these questions.”