By Shaun Hall of the Daily Courier
Josephine County Commissioner Simon Hare says he intends to recuse himself from voting on proposed marijuana regulations to avoid the appearance of having a conflict of interest.
Hare's family owns Illinois Valley farmland that is zoned exclusive farm use — land where marijuana growing is allowed outright and could increase in value if the county restricts commercial marijuana farming on land zoned rural residential.
Hare announced the conflict in advance of a new round of public hearings set to begin at 9 a.m. Wednesday at the Basker Auditorium in downtown Grants Pass, with a second hearing to follow in coming weeks.
DeYoung and Morgan are residents of Grants Pass, where outdoor marijuana cultivation is banned.
Hare said he'll continue to act as chairman of the county Board of Commissioners during proceedings on the proposed regulations, which could put hundreds of marijuana growers out of business — or drive them underground.
Wednesday's hearing is the first since commissioners backed off their own initial proposal to ban new farms in rural residential zones but grandfather in existing sites.
Hare and fellow commissioners Dan DeYoung and Lily Morgan have discussed possible exemptions to the regulations, but have not reached agreement on specific criteria. The county already has a process for people seeking a variance from land-use rules.
The latest version of the proposed regulations reclassifies grow sites of 13 plants or more as commercial, then bans commercial farming on parcels of 5 acres or less in rural residential zones. That would include any of the more than 3,000 registered medical marijuana growers in Josephine County, the second-most in Oregon after Jackson County.
The new regulations, made in response to citizen complaints about marijuana farms, would ensnare Yusuf Guient, one of about 100 recreational growers in the county already licensed as commercial by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission.
Many of the OLCC-licensed recreational farms are located on small lots zoned rural residential. That includes Guient, whose farm in the Williams area is just over 3 acres.
He said he hates to see lawful, respectful growers like himself suffer because of the actions of illegal, irresponsible growers.
"We are family," he says. "We're not drug lords. We do our very best to stay on good terms with the neighbors."
Despite arguments from growers like Guient, county commissioners are feeling pressure to enact restrictions. Hare says he and his colleagues field complaints daily from people with concerns about marijuana farms. He says commercial operations don't belong in residential areas.
"I'm sorry for those caught between the crosshairs on both sides," Hare said. "Let's get it right and move forward."
The new rules call for commercial growers in rural residential zones to apply for county permits and undergo annual inspections to ensure compliance with all county codes. The rules also mandate that the person licensed by the state to grow on a property must be an owner of the property. And they place restrictions on rural residential lots larger than 5 acres.
It's the elimination of the grandfather clause that would have allowed existing farms to stay in business that particularly disappoints Guient. He says the regulations constitute "a taking" by the county and that he has hired an attorney in case there's a lawsuit. He expects others to join him if there's a court fight.
Even if commissioners agree to let current operations continue, there's another provision of the proposed regulations calling for outdoor marijuana grow sites to be 150 feet away from property lines. Guient's crop is grown about 50 feet from one neighbor's property line.
"The 150-foot setback is completely ridiculous," he says. "A 150-foot setback would take back all of our viable agricultural land."
Guient is a 20-year local resident and former medical marijuana grower who is now growing for the adult-use market, commonly called the recreational market. He's licensed by the OLCC and must test his product and keep detailed records.
On top of everything, Guient says he is facing other challenges, including competition and taxes. Competition has driven down prices to about half of the $1,500 per pound they were last year.
"Higher taxes and the product is worth less," he says. "It takes away our ability to pay good wages and to do normal farming practice."
So Guient is fighting on multiple fronts to keep the industry legal and viable, especially for small craft farmers like himself.
"Most of us are organic farmers and care about the land. We really want cooperation with the commissioners," he said. "Cooperation on both sides to make this a better industry."
An evolving industry
Josephine County's proposed restrictions on commercial marijuana farms in rural residential zones come at a time of rapid change in the marijuana industry:
• In 2014, Oregon voters agreed to legalize the use of marijuana by persons 21 years and older — a proposal that actually failed by two votes in Josephine County.
• In January 2015, there were nearly 2,500 medical marijuana grow sites in the county, compared with nearly 3,100 as of July 2017, an increase of 24 percent, according to the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program.
• The number of commercial recreational marijuana farms in the county has gone from zero to more than 100 in that time, according to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission.
• More commercial farms likely are on the way, given that more than 500 land-use compatibility statements have been filed with the county, an initial step in OLCC's licensing process.
• Of those 500-plus applications, more than 200 applied for land-use compatability statements for rural residential properties.
• It's unknown how many of those who obtained the land-use statements actually applied for or were denied state licenses.