County temporarily halts marijuana farm permits

A proposed marijuana farm on Lopez Island prompted action from the San Juan County Council in the form of a moratorium. Two of the three council members voted to enact a six-month pause on permitting marijuana production and processing operations in the county during its regular meeting on April 2.

“I’m not saying I can support any change to [current regulations],” Councilmember Rick Hughes said. “I like to know what [rules] we have and how it protects the residents while allowing economic activity to happen in our county.”

A public hearing on the embargo is scheduled for 9:15 a.m. on May 21. The meeting is required within 60 days of announcing the stay for an action plan to be discussed.

Hughes opposed the moratorium, citing the effect that ceasing permitting on all marijuana production and processing operations would have on existing farms in the county. He noted that an Orcas farm is currently for sale and could run into permitting problems should a buyer be found and that if any of the other operations wish to expand, they’re prohibited while the moratorium is in place.

“We’re trying to anticipate the unanticipated,” Councilmember Bill Watson said, in support of the limitation as opposed to just those considered tier 2 and 3. “We’re dealing with the general problem, not just a specific instance.”

Tier 1 allows for up to 2,000 square feet of plant production space; tier 2 is between 2,000 and 10,000 square feet; and tier 3 is for 10,000–30,000 square feet.

The topic of prohibiting permits to new marijuana grow operations arose from the controversy surrounding three proposed farms on Lopez. The applicant for all three permits through the state’s marijuana licensing board is Laurent Bentitou, who owns waterfront property on Lopez Sound Road and Ceres Garden in Bellevue, Washington.

The first proposed tier 3 site was on Ferry Road and is owned by Michael and Vicky Terra of Paducah, Kentucky. This application was withdrawn by the applicant. Then, the second and third requests were made for Bentitou’s waterfront property, a smaller location, but also for both a tier 3 permit as well as a tier 2.

“We’ve been lucky,” Council Chairmember Jamie Stephens said regarding existing grow operations in the county. “We haven’t had to face the same issues that we’re facing on a long, narrow piece of property.”

Eight community members from Lopez went before council during its public comment period to petition the county to not permit the marijuana farms. A repeated concern of the citizens was what effects a large marijuana farm would have on an island with wells that are already experiencing saltwater intrusion.

“I hope at the very least that there will be a study done on that kind of draw on an aquifer,” Lopezian Mike North said. “I just hope you give yourselves a little more time to a little more study before it’s approved.”

North is part of a group of more than 330 Lopez residents known as SayNoLopez who are opposed to the idea of a large marijuana production on the island.

“Marijuana’s a thirsty plant placing a high demand on our limited resources,” fellow group member Kurt Fuller said. “There is no way that they could completely supply a tier 2 and tier 3 operation.”

Council had asked the county’s Agriculture Resources Commission to provide a recommendation on what it should do regarding marijuana as an agricultural product.

“It’s growing things, it is an agricultural practice,” said commission representative Faith Van De Putte. “But the practices are not consistent with historic, current or projected agricultural practices in San Juan County.”

Van De Putte explained that over the course of three meetings, the group was unable to agree on what exactly should be done regarding marijuana production in relation to allowed agricultural purposes. However, she did say they suggested treating the plant as its own entity in relation to land-use designations.

“It’s being regulated in a very different way,” Van De Putte said.

Watson added that you can have regulations on one agricultural product without impacting others. For example, he continued, large cattle feed-lots are not allowed in the county. Because of this, the county should be able to have restrictions on tier 2 and tier 3 marijuana production and processing operations without affecting smaller grows.

“We’re all trying to encourage agriculture in our community and to keep the rural nature of our community,” Watson said.