Would impose more permits, new site requirements
Where people can start new cannabis farms in Okanogan County — and the requirements for new or expanded operations — will change if revisions to the county code are approved.
In many areas, a conditional-use permit would be required before someone could start a cannabis operation, and there are new rules for fencing and lighting.
Most of the changes are designed to give the county more oversight over cannabis producer permits and to increase compatibility with neighboring uses.
The proposed code revisions specify that simply getting a license from the state doesn’t vest the activity for cannabis operations in the county. Any parcel that’s permitted for a cannabis operation would have to be under control of the state license holder.
The revisions would require all cannabis producers and processors to register annually with the Okanogan County Planning Department. There would be a fee for this registration, although it hasn’t been set yet.
The proposed revisions require all lighting to be downcast and shielded so that it isn’t visible from neighboring properties. There are new requirements for fencing, which must be at least 100 feet from the property line. Acceptable fencing materials include slated chain link, wood with black fabric covering, or wood with nonreflective tin sheets in a neutral color.
Any farms that want to expand or relocate would have to apply for all necessary permits from the state and county. Okanogan County personnel and law enforcement would be able to inspect the sites and facilities of producers and processors during normal business hours without prior notice.
The revised code also clarifies limits on water withdrawal to coincide with current regulations for the Methow and Okanogan watersheds.
Comment on proposed cannabis changes
There will be a public hearing on the proposed changes to the county code for cannabis operations before the Okanogan County planning commission on Monday, Aug. 22, at 7 p.m. in the commissioners’ hearing room in Okanogan. People can also attend remotely. The link will be posted on the Planning Department website.
People can provide up to five minutes of verbal testimony at the hearing or can submit written comments through noon on Aug. 22 to Planner Pam Wyllson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The proposed changes are available at https://okanogancounty.org/government/planning under Projects & Plans, Cannabis Code Update. For more information, contact Planning Director Pete Palmer at email@example.com.
The county is also proposing changes to the District Use Chart, which governs which activities are permissible in zones throughout the county. The new regulations would prohibit cannabis farms, processors and retail stores in the Rural 1 zone (1-acre lot minimums). A conditional-use permit would be required in most rural zones and in industrial areas. A conditional-use permit is already required for all cannabis operations in the Methow Review District.
A conditional-use permit requires an environmental review and provides an opportunity for the public to comment.
The proposed changes to the county code are in response to regulatory issues faced by the Planning Department in administering the code, according to the environmental checklist prepared by the county.
After finding that Washington state had been issuing licenses to growers without coordinating with the county about its permit and zone requirements, including not checking whether cannabis farms were permitted in a particular zone, the county commissioners imposed a moratorium on new farms last August.
The moratorium was also prompted by the county’s discovery that some property owners had been subleasing “suites” to multiple growers, meaning that the state may have been licensing more than one grow on a single parcel without accounting for the size of the parcel or the aggregate size of the individual grows, according to the Planning Department.
The Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board issues licenses in tiers, which govern the size of a farm, but the state asks only for an address and doesn’t look at parcel information. There’s nothing restricting how many licenses are allowed on a single parcel, Okanogan County Commissioner Andy Hover said last year.
While the state licenses the farm, the county permits the land use. Each grow must have an approved site plan that shows the entire operation — the total acreage and all the components, including outbuildings, hoop houses, greenhouses, worker housing, and water source, according to Okanogan County Planning Director Pete Palmer. Some farms have expanded beyond their permit, she said last year.
Grower meetings successful
As part of the moratorium, the county required all cannabis producers to meet with the Planning Department to provide a copy of their current license and site plan. The deadline for those meetings was extended several times to accommodate the harvest season and give producers a chance to schedule an appointment. Although some producers were initially wary, as of last week, Planning Department staff had met with all but about five producers, Palmer said.
Only two or three producers were fully compliant with all county requirements for permits and site plans, but all were very supportive in taking the necessary steps to come into compliance for permits, inspections and addresses, and the meetings went well, Palmer said.
No permits have been terminated as a result of the meetings, which were handled as an opportunity for the producers to ensure that their investments are in compliance with local regulations. The meetings gave producers a chance to obtain necessary permits, inspections, and addresses without penalties, Palmer said.
Most needed site analysis and/or building permits. Some required only final inspections or address corrections, she said.
The moratorium on new or expanded grows is set to expire Aug. 28.