By Shaun Hall of the Daily Courier
Despite heavy lobbying from marijuana growers, the Josephine County Board of Commissioners gave initial support Wednesday to restrictions on commercial operations in rural residential zones.
"I believe where we're at is a start to try to bring peace," Commissioner Lily Morgan said at the end of a four-hour hearing and deliberation session before a packed house at the Basker Auditorium in downtown Grants Pass.
The green rush characterized by a spike in the number and size of marijuana farms since Oregon voters legalized marijuana three years ago has prompted complaints from neighbors — and prompted action by commissioners.
Angry and frustrated growers outnumbered those neighbors 3-1 at the hearing.
The growers and their supporters pointed to the positive economic impact of marijuana and its effect on jobs and retailers in the Grants Pass area.
Many didn't like what they viewed as the unfairness of new restrictions put in place after operations were already up and running.
The new rules effectively ban most commercial production on rural residential lots of 5 acres or less and limit the size of operations on rural residential properties in excess of 5 acres.
Private property rights were a big topic, but the cry of "You're interfering with my property rights" was used by those on both sides of the issues. Growers threatened lawsuits and appeals to state land-use authorities. Some suggested that they wanted to refer the new rules to voters or recall commissioners.
A few growers said that medical marijuana patients would be adversely affected. Others didn't like a requirement that the property owner be the holder of the license issued by the state to grow there.
Also, some people pointed out that the county already is lacking the resources to enforce its current land-use rules, although commissioners recently agreed to hire an additional code enforcement officer, a land-use attorney and a deputy to focus on marijuana-related enforcement, with an emphasis on those affecting health and safety first.
Grower Michael Shannon of Merlin said he invested a couple hundred thousand dollars in his operation only to now face the threat of being shut down.
"I think I should be justly compensated," he said.
He suggested a couple million dollars would do.
Christine Gardiner, a member of the county's Rural Area Planning Commission and former medical grower, called the new rules unreasonable and said they would push growers into the black market.
"What's the rush?" she asked, although commissioners feel that action should have been taken long ago.
Commissioners have been working on new rules for more than a year, coinciding with new state rules that will come into effect next year calling for greater scrutiny of the industry, in an effort to curb illegal sales and prevent a threatened federal crackdown.
Many neighbors said they didn't like the smell of ripening marijuana. Also, several simply didn't feel comfortable living near a marijuana grow site. Unsightly tarp and fabric fences also were raised as a continuing issue, despite newly enacted county rules restricting them.
Diana Franklin of Murphy echoed the comments of other neighbors who don't like the new marijuana grows in their neighborhoods.
"Rural residential is rural residential," she said. "I have been saying that over and over and over.
"I have heard about private property rights. My property rights have been violated. I was here first. It's a controlled substance, that's the difference."
Nearly two-thirds of county voters who cast ballots in May agreed that commercial marijuana operations should not occur in rural residential areas. They were deciding an advisory question put on the ballot by commissioners.
There's still time for changes to the new regulations.
Morgan said she wants to revisit the topic of setbacks. New rules call for outdoor grow sites to be 150 feet from property lines, and indoor operations to be 100 feet away, all in an effort to mitigate odor.
At some point — probably after final approval is given to the new rules later this month — commissioners are expected to discuss possible exemptions to the rules. As it stands, growers who want a break can appeal to the board, even though commissioners have not discussed any criteria for allowing the rules to be bent.
Morgan wants to discuss the possibility of giving a break to growers who are surrounded by other growers. The board likely will discuss amendments to the new rules prior to a scheduled second public hearing about the regulations set for Nov. 29.
Morgan and Commissioner Dan DeYoung agreed on Wednesday to move the measure forward for that second hearing. Board Chairman Simon Hare abstained, saying he didn't want to be a distraction because his family owns land zoned exclusive farm use that could rise in value if the new rules are adopted.
The Nov. 29 hearing comes just prior to a Dec. 1 deadline for the county's more than 3,000 medical marijuana growers to notify the state if they will operate as "mom and pop" operations and grow fewer than 13 plants or if they will grow more than that and be subject to having their crop closely tracked by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission.
The carrot held out to entice them to register for tracking is a new state law allowing them to sell up to 20 pounds of product into the state's retail market.
The county's rules would go into effect in March. Growers on rural residential lots of greater than 5 acres would have a grace period of two years to come into compliance with new rules that would limit the size of grow sites to 5,000 square feet, down from as much as 40,000 square feet.
Commercial growers would need to apply for a permit and be subject to annual inspections. Commercial operations are defined by the county as 13 or more plants, lining up with the new state law allowing medical growers with 13 or more plants to sell on the retail market.
Currently, more than 100 commercial marijuana farms in the county are licensed by the state. That's in addition to the more than 3,000 medical growers.
The new rules may be viewed online at co.josephine.or.us. Click on "agendas and minutes," then click on Wednesday's weekly business session.
For more information, call the county Board of Commissioners, at 541-474-5221, ext. 2; or contact Community Development Director Julie Schmelzer, at 541-474-5428.
Reach reporter Shaun Hall at 541-474-3722 or firstname.lastname@example.org.