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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane County bans new outdoor pot farms as odor complaints roll in

Some neighbors of outdoor pot farms in Spokane County have complained about their odor, prompting the County Commission to impose a six-month moratorium on new farms - without any public notice that it was mulling that action. (Brennan Linsley / AP)

New marijuana growers in Spokane County will have to grow their pot indoors.

In a surprise move Tuesday, the county commissioners voted unanimously to stop issuing permits for outdoor marijuana farms, citing “a substantial number of complaints” about the smell of growing pot. Any new growing operations will need to be fully enclosed.

“We have been inundated with code enforcement requests to deal with marijuana odor,” said Commissioner Al French, who also serves on the Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency board. “When the buds are in blossom, they emit an odor that makes adjacent property owners unable to utilize their land.”

The moratorium will last six months as commissioners gather public feedback and consider making it permanent. It does not affect existing farms or those with pending applications.

French said the Clean Air Agency has been “wrestling with this issue for months,” but the ordinance was never added to the commissioners’ agenda. Instead, it was raised as a “miscellaneous item” during Tuesday’s meeting, a move that doesn’t appear to violate Washington’s Open Public Meetings Act.

“There comes a time when it’s the right time to bring something forward,” French said, adding that he didn’t want to cause an uproar before testing out the ordinance. “You don’t want to advertise these things before they even take effect.”

The policy came as a surprise to Crystal Oliver, who advocates for laws that are friendly to pot farmers and recently served on the Clean Air Agency Marijuana Advisory Committee.

“I did not see it on the agenda or I would have been there,” she said, referring to the commissioners’ meeting, which had no audience other than a Spokesman-Review reporter.

Oliver, who owns a farm north of Spokane with her husband, said the Clean Air Agency has received many complaints about pot odor from a small number of neighbors “who morally object to marijuana.”

Of 18 farms that were subject to complaints in Spokane County, one has been hit especially hard. The Clean Air Agency tallied 107 odor complaints between October 2014 and March 2016, and 54 were related to Bang’s Cannabis in Cheney.

On average, the other farms received fewer than two complaints during that time period, and 21 complaints couldn’t be traced to an odor source.

“Fifty percent of all the complaints came from one person about one farm,” said Oliver’s husband, Kevin Oliver. “The commissioners know that, and I think maybe they just don’t like marijuana that much.”

French noted that those complaints are only what the Clean Air Agency received.

“The complaints that I receive as county commissioner are much broader,” he said. “We now have to confront the very real possibility of litigation.”

The smell wafting from outdoor pot farms has made some neighbors “physically sick,” and that’s unfair to residents who moved into an area first, French said.

“I look at this as a property rights issue,” he said. “Your property rights end when they start to infringe on mine.”

Commissioner Shelly O’Quinn claimed that one resident’s property value recently dropped 10 percent because of a nearby pot farm. She did not identify the farm or the resident.

City Council President Ben Stuckart said he was aware of the complaints made to the Clean Air Agency, though he felt the agency should be tackling other issues.

“I would prefer that the Clean Air Agency would be spending their time with pollutants that cause global warming, and not worrying about how to stifle a new industry,” said Stuckart, who has been supportive of the marijuana industry within city limits.

But, he noted, the county commissioners are free to pass whatever zoning regulations they deem appropriate.

Crystal Oliver added, “It’s unfortunate they are targeting outdoor cultivation, which is more environmentally friendly as far as waste and energy usage than indoor cultivation.”

Staff writer Kip Hill contributed to this story.