Moratorium on new farms will be reconsidered Dec. 11
By Marcy Stamper
A 10-member committee has been meeting weekly since early October to develop new guidelines for marijuana farms in Okanogan County, with their first order of business figuring out where the farms shouldn’t go.
The committee was created this fall in conjunction with a six-month moratorium on new marijuana farms. The Okanogan County commissioners imposed the ban in June after receiving complaints from both the cannabis industry and the general public.
When the commissioners established the committee, they saw it as a way of resolving concerns about marijuana production. Industry members said the county’s current land-use regulations don’t provide enough guidance and certainty. At the same time, the public has complained that the regulations aren’t adequate to control where marijuana can be grown.
After marijuana was legalized by a voter initiative in 2012, many producers were drawn to Okanogan County because of a decision by the then-county commissioners to treat cannabis like any other crop, instead of requiring a conditional-use permit.
So when the state started accepting applications for marijuana licenses in 2013, “farms for raising all crops” were permitted everywhere in unincorporated Okanogan County – and marijuana was just another crop.
Since then, 102 farms have been licensed across the county. That’s the third-highest number of producers in the state, after Spokane County, with 145, and Snohomish County, with 105. (These numbers don’t include farms that have closed, nor the handful of licenses still pending.)
Still, that doesn’t translate into 100 farms in Okanogan County, since many cannabis farms are shared by three to five separate licensees, said Perry Huston, Okanogan County’s planning director.
In addition to treating cannabis like any other crop, Okanogan County was attractive to growers because its climate is favorable for outdoor farms.
In fact, the successful effort to persuade the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (WSCLB) to permit outdoor grows was driven in part by an by a local growers’ group, with support from Rep. Joel Kretz (R-Wauconda). The group contended that growing marijuana in large factory settings was not environmentally sustainable because it requires powerful artificial lights.
The WSCLB decided to allow outdoor grows, but required them to have an 8-foot-high, sight-obscuring wall or fence. Outdoor grows must be at least 20 feet apart. All producers, indoors or out, must have an alarm and a video-surveillance system.
Across the state, 45 percent of producers grow exclusively indoors, with 19 percent growing only outdoors and 36 percent using a combination of indoor, outdoor and greenhouse methods, according to the WSCLB. No breakdown for indoor and outdoor operations was available for Okanogan County alone at press time.
After the county’s initial, unregulated approach — and a few years of on-the-ground experience — when the Okanogan County commissioners adopted a new zoning code in 2016, they decided to require a conditional-use permit for all new marijuana operations.
Initial complaints to the county officials about marijuana farms were about unsightly fences and lights. Other complaints focused on increased traffic and the impacts on quiet, rural roads and on land values, said Huston.
At a county commissioners’ meeting in September, Commissioner Andy Hover said that when the state required an 8-foot fence, officials apparently assumed the farm would be on flat ground. But in some areas, the road bed is higher than the property and people can see right inside the fence, he said. Hover said he’d also received calls from constituents concerned about light pollution, loud music and parking issues.
But the most-common complaints are now about odor, which is reportedly worst during a six-week period when the marijuana matures, said Huston. “Different strains smell less, but I’m told that’s not the good stuff,” he said, adding, “that pretty much exhausts my knowledge of pot horticulture.”
Okanogan County has a right-to-farm ordinance, which advises people that there may be noise, odors, dust or insects from farm operations.
Among the approaches the cannabis committee is considering to address these problems is a prohibition on marijuana farms in densely populated areas or next to homes. One approach would be to prohibit new farms where the predominant lot size is 5 acres or less, said Huston.
Discussions about ways to control odor include imposing larger setbacks from neighboring parcels. But committee member Jeremy Moberg, CEO of CannaSol Farms, a marijuana grower and processor in Riverside, said setbacks could make even a good-sized farm like his “pretty much unusable,” according to the committee minutes.’’
The committee is focusing on policies that would apply only to new grows. The county’s moratorium on processors and retailers was lifted in July soon after it was imposed. The moratorium on new cannabis farms expires Dec. 26.
The committee is composed of five representatives of the county’s marijuana industry and five people who have property near a marijuana operation or work with groups that combat substance abuse, according to Huston.
The cannabis committee will make its recommendations to the county’s planning commission, which will hold a public hearing. No timeline has been released.
The county commissioners will consider whether to extend, repeal or amend the moratorium on Dec. 11.