The Spokane County commissioners have lifted a moratorium on outdoor marijuana farms, but they replaced it with zoning rules that are significantly more restrictive to the pot industry.
All new farms and expansions will require a conditional use permit, which can only be obtained after a public hearing process. New growing, processing and retail operations are now banned on rural 5-acre lots and urban reserve lands – sites where urban development may occur in the future.
Despite those restrictions, Crystal Oliver, who owns a pot farm north of Spokane with her husband, called the new ordinance “a really good approach to balancing the needs of the cannabis farmers and the needs of the neighbors.”
The county commissioners imposed the moratorium in a surprise vote in November, citing “a substantial number of complaints” about the smell of growing pot. Without giving any public notice, they decided to temporarily stop issuing permits for outdoor marijuana farms. In January, they extended the ban.
Growers and industry advocates, who organized as the Cannabis Farmers Council, voiced their frustration at a series of public workshops. Oliver, a council board member, said she also met with each of the county commissioners.
In a letter sent to the commissioners in January, the Cannabis Farmers Council said the moratorium would stifle the county’s marijuana industry, citing combined annual revenues in the tens of millions of dollars, as well as tax generation and hundreds of jobs that stood to be affected.
Growers also questioned the reasoning behind the moratorium, which Commissioner Al French characterized as an effort to help property owners avoid any skunky aromas wafting from neighboring pot farms. The Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency had received hundreds of complaints about marijuana odor, but a disproportionate number targeted a single farm, Bang’s Cannabis near Cheney. French sits on the agency’s governing board.
There are nearly 160 producing and processing facilities in the county, and Oliver noted that most have not been the subject of any complaints.
“We understand the sole basis for the emergency ban on the expansion of outdoor grows is anecdotal, and for the most part unsubstantiated, reports of odors emanating from cannabis grows,” the pot farmers wrote in their letter. “In this case there has been a concerted and targeted effort by a few individuals to push an anti-cannabis agenda under the guise of an air quality concern.”
At least one neighbor of Bang’s Cannabis, however, successfully petitioned to have his property’s assessed value reduced by 10 percent because of the farm’s odor.
Although scientists have found no link between the smell of unsmoked marijuana and any health defects, pot farms, like other businesses in Spokane County, must comply with odor standards enforced by the Clean Air Agency. Many install fans, filters and exhaust vents on their greenhouses.
French and Commissioners Shelly O’Quinn and Nancy McLaughlin approved the original moratorium in November. It was McLaughlin’s last vote as commissioner; Josh Kerns was sworn in to replace her hours later.
O’Quinn said last week that the marijuana ordinance was among several complicated issues she wanted to see resolved before she resigns next month to lead the Inland Northwest Community Foundation. She said the new ordinance represents a compromise.
A public hearing on the ordinance is scheduled for July 11, and Oliver said she expects growers will voice their support.
The new zoning restrictions generally don’t apply to existing farms, processors and retailers, or those with applications pending with the state Liquor and Cannabis Board. They would, however, come into play if any existing facility attempts to expand its operations.
Most new pot grows will have to be 100 feet from any property line and 300 feet from any home on a neighboring property, but the county may waive that rule if an affected neighbor allows it, potentially reducing the required distances by up to 50 percent.