County rules limit new pot business locales

Published on Wed, Apr 2, 2014 by Ian Ferguson

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Stricter regulations passed by Whatcom County Council will prevent many would-be pot growers and processors in unincorporated Whatcom County from setting up shop, but some of those restrictions might only be temporary.

In their regular session March 25, councilmembers unanimously voted to pass an ordinance with rules aimed at keeping pot businesses in unincorporated Whatcom County away from sensitive residential areas. The new rules are stricter than those set by the Washington State Liquor Control Board (WSLCB), the regulatory agency charged with setting policy for the budding marijuana industry at the state level. Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson issued an opinion in January that local jurisdictions can enforce stricter regulations on the marijuana industry, or even ban it altogether.

The ordinance passed by the council will only last six months unless it is extended, but councilmembers have expressed willingness to bring the ordinance back to council for revision much sooner than that. A revised version of the ordinance may see a public hearing as soon as Tuesday, April 22.

The ordinance replaces the emergency 60-day moratorium on new marijuana businesses enacted by the council on February 11, allowing dozens of businesses that still comply with the new regulations to move forward with permitting. However, many applicants are now precluded from the marijuana market because their proposed locations don’t meet the new requirements. Heather Wolf, an attorney who represents at least two proposed marijuana businesses in Whatcom County, spoke against the ordinance at the public hearing March 25.

“If you enact this ordinance, you will prevent half of the Whatcom County licensees from operating at the locations for which they applied,” she said. “Why eliminate opportunities for family wage jobs with arbitrary setback requirements?”

State law under Initiative-502, the 2012 ballot measure legalizing recreational marijuana in Washington, requires new pot businesses to be at least 1,000 feet away from sensitive areas such as schools, recreation centers, parks, playgrounds, libraries, child care centers, public transit centers and arcades. It also requires security precautions such as fences and cameras.

Provisions in the county ordinance expand upon the state requirements. Pot businesses in unincorporated Whatcom County must now be 300 feet away from any residence not on the same property as the business, with no more than eight residences located within 1,000 feet of the business. There must also be a 1,000-foot setback from the property line of community centers and religious institutions since those places often house daycares and schools. The setbacks apply to locations in all zoning districts except for industrial districts. In addition, the ordinance requires all marijuana businesses to prevent marijuana odors from being detected outside the building.

In February, the council enacted the emergency moratorium in reaction to community concerns about potential criminal activities in light of county sheriff Bill Elfo’s assertion that it would be difficult to patrol some of the more remote proposed locations. 

Residents from Clearbrook, a community west of Sumas, were among those concerned that marijuana businesses would negatively impact their communities. Resident Lonnie Bauman said that a marijuana business has been proposed for a lot that adjoins family homes, and described the site as the hub of a family-oriented neighborhood. “There’s been talk of 8-foot barbed-wire fencing, security cameras and lighting requirements. To have what looks a lot like a prison built in the center of a neighborhood that has a lot of children and families would be devastating,” he said.

Councilmembers said they wanted to pass the ordinance both to protect sensitive areas and to end the moratorium, allowing the businesses in locations well away from sensitive areas to proceed if and when they are issued licenses by the WSLCB (most businesses are still waiting for their licenses to be issued). Councilmembers expressed their desire to revisit the ordinance at the next council meeting with an eye towards easing some of its restrictions.

“As we look at this again in a couple weeks, I and a couple other councilmembers have discussed relaxing some of the restrictions in the ordinance to allow more of the legitimate applicants to move forward,” councilmember Ken Mann said after the meeting, adding that amendments would likely include limiting building size in dense residential areas and removing some setback requirements, among others.

“Hopefully we can hammer out a revised ordinance in our next committee meeting [scheduled for Tuesday, April 8] and introduce it that night in our regular meeting,” Mann said. If the ordinance is introduced at the regular session April 8, a public hearing on the revised ordinance will be scheduled for the next county council meeting Tuesday, April 22.