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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane Valley weighs easing marijuana zoning law

The Spokane River separates the Centennial Trail, below, from the industrial area to the north, just east of Barker Road in Spokane Valley. Spokane Valley’s pot ordinance says no marijuana-related businesses can be within 1,000 feet of a recreational trail. (Jesse Tinsley)

Spokane Valley is home to the largest marijuana-growing facility licensed by the state so far.

Now city leaders, despite their near-unanimous dislike of legalized pot, are poised to open more industrial areas to potential cannabis production.

The reason: economic development and the prospect of helping refill long-empty warehouses with tenants and the new jobs that could bring.

“It’s legal here whether you agree with it or not,” said Mayor Dean Grafos, openly acknowledging the awkwardness of discussing the state’s fledgling marijuana industry in purely economic development terms. “We’re looking at keeping the additional restrictions for retail but not on the production and bagging.”

Later this month, the heavily conservative City Council is expected to partially ease zoning restrictions that go beyond state requirements by imposing 1,000-foot buffer zones around recreational trails in addition to schools, parks and public libraries. Production and bagging operations likely will be removed from the trail restrictions while leaving the regulations on retail outlets intact.

The interim zoning plan was intended to protect the family-friendly nature of the Centennial Trail and the soon-to-developed Appleway Trail through the heart of the Valley.

But the trail buffer extended into several industrial sites north of the Spokane River along the eastern edges of the city.

Commercial real estate agents, industrial property owners and would-be pot entrepreneurs all have urged the city to reconsider, suggesting that the river is a better natural buffer than an arbitrary 1,000-foot rule.

“For someone to get to our property (from the Centennial Trail), they’d have to swim the river, cross the railroad tracks and climb a 6-foot fence,” said Paul Bielec, who has had several marijuana producers contact him about his industrial complex west of Barker Road. The facilities there are considered off-limits for pot production because the southern property line is barely within 1,000 feet of the trail on the opposite bank of the river.

“I think we need to use some common sense,” said Councilman Bill Bates, supporting efforts to restore the sites to potential use.

More than 30 companies have applied to the state for production and processing licenses in Spokane Valley, while 43 more have applied for retail licenses. The state will allow just three retail operations in the city, but there’s no geographical limit on the number of licensed producers and processors.

So far, the only licensed production facility in Spokane Valley is Farmer J’s LLC, which launched operations last month. It’s the largest indoor growing operation that’s up and running right now in Washington. Located in a secured facility near Argonne Road, it’s unaffected by any of the city’s additional restrictions and is expected to be among the first to have inventory ready for delivery to retail outlets when they open this summer.

In Spokane, a small production facility also is up and running, but the owner, Sean Green, has been looking at larger sites in Spokane Valley as well.

Green is among those who have urged Spokane Valley to ease its zoning restrictions.

“We now have a market that’s creating new and legal jobs that pay well and include benefits,” Green said. “These production facilities are more discreet in nature (than the retail outlets will be) and, fortunately, it appears Spokane Valley is embracing this.”

Deputy Mayor Arne Woodard supports the proposed zoning adjustments but worries that cities will have to bear the brunt of enforcement and other yet-to-be identified costs.

“I wish we didn’t have to deal with it, but the fact is it’s state law,” Woodard said, noting that the state so far is refusing to share any of the marijuana tax revenue with cities. “I’m all for having the commercial property owners getting their buildings filled, absolutely, but there’s some costs overall the city is going to have to deal with here as this market develops.”

Grafos sees differences between production and retail operations.

He said the pharmaceutical industry already has shown that drugs can be discreetly stored and packaged in warehouses that draw little attention, and he’s confident it will be similar for marijuana producers and packagers.

“We’ve got pharmaceutical warehouses operating in the Valley that have done so for years without drawing attention to what they are or what they do,” the mayor said. “They’re nondescript and secure and I think that’s what the marijuana production and packaging can be, too.”