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Shawn Vestal: Spokane County Commission’s surprise ruling on outdoor pot farms stinks

It’s a weed-odor emergency. A pot-stink urgency.

The Spokane County Commission – the body that passes laws on behalf of almost half a million citizens – rushed a six-month ban on outdoor pot farms into existence, without a public hearing, without a public agenda item, without a public whisper.

“You don’t want to advertise these things before they even take effect,” Commissioner Al French said last week.

Acting under the “miscellaneous items” portion of their agenda last Tuesday, the commission put a moratorium on outdoor marijuana farms, citing complaints they’d received about odor. The one person in attendance to be surprised by the move was a Spokesman-Review reporter. Though it was apparently a legal move, the vote smells worse than any barnyard in full flower.

Because some of us do want you to advertise these things before they even take effect, commissioner.

One might even say that’s the way representative government is meant to work. Advertising these things before they take effect. Allowing the public to discuss and debate these things before they take effect. Having a public hearing, or even two, before these things take effect. And then, you know, deciding whether these things should take effect.

Instead, the county commissioners declared an emergency – a weed-odor emergency, one that simply had to be addressed without public notice, under the provisions of emergency ordinances, which can be adopted without public notice on matters that arise 24 hours before meetings with public agendas.

French told me this week that the county used a process of adopting an interim ordinance before taking public input that it has used many times before. He noted that the explosion of the pot industry, and particularly large outdoor farms, have had a big and largely unforeseen impact on neighbors, some of whom have approached him complaining that the smell of the weed is unbearable.

French said he’s hearing repeatedly from people saying something like, “I was living in heaven and now I’m all of a sudden living in hell. So what are you going to do about it?”

He said it’s time to take a pause and consider whether, or how, future outdoor pot farms will work here, noting that some counties have limited such operations to indoors.

French was also unapologetic about avoiding public notice beforehand, saying it would have prompted a rush of applications to beat the deadline that would have made the problem worse.

He’s probably right about that. And he’s right when he says the process is legal, and that before a final ordinance is adopted, there will be opportunities for the public to weigh in.

But I can’t imagine a less democratic, transparent process than the one the county used here: purposely avoiding telling the public it was going to take an action. If there’s anything citizens interested in open government need from a monolithic, one-party, three-member board, it’s not surprise ordinances.

Pot farms are both a growth industry and cultural flash point, and Spokane County has been home to both. Countywide, there are 147 permitted growers or processors, along with 28 retailers, according to state statistics. The county is home to the most sales by marijuana processors in the state, and the fourth-highest sales by growers – a total of $6.2 million in November alone.

On average, retail sales per person in Spokane County are above $20 (helped no doubt by Idaho crossovers), which is among the highest in the state.

It’s booming, in other words. Tens of millions in taxes have flowed into state and local coffers. But not everyone is into it – and, like any farm product, pot may affect the neighbors in ways the neighbors don’t like.

French also said that the commission has been dealing with the issue for months, as has the Clean Air Agency, which has spent $140,000 responding to pot farm odor complaints.

If that’s the case, it’s even more egregious that the commission seemed to take pains to hide their intentions. They did not include the matter in any way on the meeting agenda; state law requires that “any ordinance, resolution, rule, regulation, order, or directive” be passed only with proper public notice, including a public agenda for the meeting which is to be posted 24 hours beforehand. The law also allows for governing bodies to act in cases of emergencies that arise in that 24 hours.

I guess this was that?

Some pot growers smell a rat. They think the complaints are coming from people who have an objection to more than just the smell of marijuana, but object to the state’s new growth industry on moral grounds. Most complaints made to the Clean Air Agency are targeted on one farm in Cheney; the others, on average, have received two complaints.

It’s seems that the marijuana business is getting more side-eye on nuisance questions than other smelly agricultural projects might. The commission’s plan is to impose the six-month moratorium on outdoor farms, and then gather public input about making the ban permanent. It doesn’t apply to those farms that are already permitted or which have already filed applications.

Marijuana odor might well be a legitimate problem. Odors and other nuisances arising from agricultural practices often are, and governments have to regulate with the neighbors in mind – whether it’s limiting field burning or massive dairy operations.

Al French is a man with a long record of public service in this community. He’s well acquainted with how the sausage is made. When he says he wanted to avoid making it public beforehand, he was doing so with his eyes wide open – he and his fellow commissioners were doing it purposefully, to avoid giving people knowledge that they might have acted on.

Which stinks.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.