By Miles Becker
The topic of growing industrial marijuana was at the top of the agenda for the San Juan County Council meeting on Feb. 19, in Friday Harbor.
The council had until March 4 to submit comments to the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board regarding a Lopez Island marijuana producer application. The application was for a Tier 3 outdoor grow operation – the largest allowable type of marijuana field production in the state.
“The [proposed marijuana farm] location is on the gateway to Lopez. Nearly all island residents and visitors will directly encounter impacts from the operation in this rural valley within 2 miles of unloading from the ferry,” Lopez resident and marijuana farm opposer Tad Cline said.
The principal applicant is Laurent Bentitou, who owns waterfront property on Lopez Sound Road and Ceres Garden in Bellevue, Washington. The proposed site on Ferry Road is owned by Michael and Vicky Terra of Paducah, Kentucky, who would need to transfer ownership if approved.
Cline, along with more than 280 additional Lopez residents, objects to the proposed operation based on the reported experiences of other communities with industrial grow facilities, such as odors, decreased property values and security measures that seem extreme for the island community. There is no existing legislation in San Juan County prohibiting marijuana production facilities.
“The state considers marijuana as something other than agriculture for purposes of taxation and regulation for good reasons. Likewise, the group opposing the [plan does] not think of marijuana as a traditional agricultural crop,” Cline said. “We don’t agree that state regulations significantly protect our county’s small unique and isolated communities and sensitive resources.”
The county council has an opportunity to challenge the application under the criteria listed in the Washington Administrative Code, chapters 314-55. One consideration is maintaining a 1,000-foot distance from a K-12 school, public park, playground, public transit center or anywhere else where minors would be exposed to the controlled substance. A second consideration is whether the applicant has a criminal record.
At the meeting, Community Development Director Erika Shook displayed a map of the property on Ferry Road showing at least one school bus stop and Odlin County Park within 1,000 feet.
If after review the state grants the license, there may be county-level obstacles specific to the location. Under the Voluntary Stewardship Program, wetlands that have been historically farmed, such as those on the property, are open to growing crops, but not for building structures other than low-impact hoop houses. Any greenhouse that’s 10,000-30,000 square feet, or a smaller processing facility, would need a special building or land use permit in a wetland area.
There are few details about the planned operation until the applicant submits an actual building or land use permit to community development.
Neighbors to the proposed site are concerned about excessive water use for irrigation. Council chairperson Jamie Stephens said an existing problem with saltwater intrusion north of the proposed site could be exacerbated by aquifer drawdown from heavy irrigation and fertilizer runoff. Shook said the applicant would need to work with Washington state Department of Ecology on water resources, adding overconsumption is “certainly something to consider in the whole marijuana discussion.”
Neighbors of the proposed site on Ferry Road believe that the business would be mislabeled as agriculture. They state on their website – www.saynolopez.com – that the operation will produce noise, sound and water pollution that would disturb nearby homeowners more than typical crops.
Faith Van De Putte, the spokesperson for the San Juan County Agricultural Resources Committee, agreed that marijuana should receive a separate designation in San Juan County Code. Van De Putte said the land use tables could be updated to make marijuana its own category with different rules than other plant products. The ARC submitted its recommendations for such changes to the council.
“Any new legislation would probably accelerate [the applicant’s] time frame,” Councilmember Bill Watson said. “That’s not something we could do in one day.”
Mandi Johnson contributed to this story.