Unincorporated Clark County could see marijuana businesses pop up in the area if a recommendation from the county planning commission is followed by the county council early next month.
The Clark County Planning Commission voted 3-2 to approve code change recommendations that would allow marijuana production, processing and retail outside of city limits in the county. The Clark County Council is set to have a work session on the matter June 26 with a public hearing and potential vote July 2.
The recommendation follows months of work by the county council, revisiting a moratorium placed on marijuana business in 2014. Around that time the county drafted code language explaining restrictions on where marijuana growers, processors or retailers could be, though they were listed as prohibited uses in code, effectively banning their development.
The planning commission recommended a few changes to what was initially on the books, as well as changing marijuana business from prohibited to permitted in approved zones. The commission reduced minimum parcel sizes needed for production and processing on agriculture and forest resource lands, removed the allowance for such uses on industrial railroad-zoned land, removed the allowance for retail marijuana business in rural commercial zones, decreased the buffer for retail business from a number of different facilities and allowed for retail operations from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Weed shop owners testify
During the commission’s hearing, several individuals testified with most representing marijuana business interests.
Jeremy Larson, of the now-shuttered Sticky’s Pot Shop in Hazel Dell, said he was “very pleased with almost everything” in the code recommendations, adding his only request would be a reduction in buffer lengths or a change in how buffers were calculated.
Sticky’s has existed in legal limbo as it operated for some time in unincorporated Clark County before closing last year after losing a case to operate in the state Supreme Court.
Larson explained that the parcels that would have the correct zoning should the moratorium be lifted were often large ones including several businesses, which, with buffers based on property line, could lead to some locations being ruled out.
“It’s not from the door front to door front,” Larson said. He said council had considered going by door front but legal staff’s interpretation of state law was that such a measurement scheme wasn’t allowed.
Larson also addressed production. He said growing marijuana would fit more in line in agricultural land as opposed to industrial zoning given the former determination’s viability for crop production similar to growing the marijuana plants.
Taylor Balduff, who has a farm in Shelton, a processing center in Tacoma and a lease on a greenhouse in Clark County, seconded that characterization of marijuana.
“Bottom line is marijuana is a crop, it is agricultural, and it should be looked at that way,” Balduff remarked. He said his Shelton operation was in rural residential zoning, something he didn’t recommend.
“I think zoned (agriculture) on true farmland is a little more appropriate,” Balduff said, noting backlash that happened when opening the operation in 2014, which he said has calmed.
Christy Stanley, a marijuana business owner and former candidate for Clark County Council Chair, said she has successfully worked with Tacoma, Kitsap County and University Place planning departments. She recommends reducing the buffers, saying it was her understanding that state law allowed a reduction of the distance to as little as 100 feet from property other than K-12 schools.
“I’ve been waiting for three years and paying rent,” Stanley remarked, referencing a potential operation she has licensed for unincorporated Clark County.
Jim Mullen, president of the Washington CannaBusiness Association and co-owner of Clark County retail business The Herbery, touched on the need for smaller parcel minimums in agriculture and forest-zoned land, saying only the largest producer/processors in the state had facilities of 10 acres or more
Kevin Loehlein, a newer resident to the county, said he supported the removal of the moratorium, noting he lives close to the now-shuttered Sticky’s, addressing the potential tax revenues as a benefit.
What opponents are saying
That potential revenue from marijuana taxes wasn’t enough for opponents of lifting the moratorium. In an interview with The Reflector, Stan Greene, one of those opponents, pointed to information from the Municipal Research and Services Center which estimated $15 million in tax from marijuana would be distributed among cities and counties in 2019, a number he felt didn’t justify the negatives for the county getting into the weed business.
Greene pointed to information from a number of sources looking at the marijuana industry, pointing out potential impacts to resource use such as water, potential pollution from the production and processing out in rural land, and increases of law enforcement resources around retail stores which previous information from Clark County Sheriff’s Office suggested could happen with expansion into the county, among others.
Greene spoke at the hearing in support of maintaining the moratorium, suggesting a postponement of a decision until citizens in unincorporated areas could vote on the proposal following public advertisement and hosting of open houses to raise awareness of what was being considered. He said that of the dozens of individuals he spoke to a part of church congregations he attends, “not one person was aware of the marijuana proposal and how it would affect their children and their families.”
Greene said that prior to the original moratorium enacted in 2014 there were open houses and public outreach, things he said were absent in the 2019 revisit.
“That’s why you don’t see a lot of people here, because they didn’t know about it,” Greene said.
Clark County Community Planning Program Manager Colete Anderson said there had been public notice sufficient to state law, later adding that an email list that provided information on the code change had more than 1,000 recipients and “absolutely” included North County residents who could be impacted.
“The general public doesn’t read those (legal notices),” Greene said.
Commissioner Robin Grimwade said he was concerned about the apparent lack of outreach outside of what was legally required.
“I think it’s in this day and (age) we should be setting a new standard for community engagement,” Grimwade remarked. Commissioner Ron Barca encouraged Greene and others to “flood the newspapers” with letters to the editor to give their opinions on a potential moratorium removal.
Barca suggested shorter buffers for retail business, explaining that a strip mall-type development with more than a dozen storefronts and acres of parking were a more “normalized” setting than a single business on a lot, which may make them more prominent and less accepted by the community. He requested county staff come up with maps that showed which parcels would be viable for marijuana business based on smaller distances, though Anderson felt it wouldn’t have a drastic effect.
“It may bump out a parcel here, a parcel there, (but) I don’t think you’re going to gain much,” Anderson said.
Commissioner Karl Johnson, a middle school teacher, said he’s seen an increase in the prevalence of students with marijuana following legalization. He pointed to his own experience as well as past county voting data as reasons for his “no” vote, joining fellow commissioner Matt Swindell as those opposed to the recommendation.
Dan Duringer, an opponent of lifting the moratorium, pointed to Clark County’s voting on 2012’s Initiative 502, which legalized recreational marijuana use. According to Clark County Elections archives I-502 had most county residents against the legalization by a narrow margin of 50.32% or a little more than 200 votes.
Duringer provided a precinct map to the council which showed that unincorporated parts of the country were largely opposed to I-502 in 2012, with a few exceptions.
“There is a large contingency of people who do not want marijuana in the North County,” Johnson remarked.