County OKs pot-growing restrictions
By Shaun Hall of the Daily Courier
Josephine County has a new set of regulations governing marijuana farms in rural residential zones, and this time growers have reason to be happy with the outcome.
On the one hand, the Board of Commissioners on Wednesday banned new commercial farms in residential areas.
On the other, the commissioners permanently grandfathered in existing operations — legal ones, anyway — and even eliminated a controversial rule that would have required 150-foot setbacks from neighbors.
That's a huge difference from a year ago, when the county tried to ban all commercial operations, including existing ones, in rural residential zones.
"Legal growers should be so happy," said Williams-area marijuana farmer Amanda Metzler, who led a year-long fight that cost her group of fellow growers $100,000 in legal fees. "We are happy with the outcome of the ordinance, which now protects all legal operating farms on rural residential."
County officials did remain firm on the subject of inspections. Although current legal marijuana operations will be able to continue, growers will now have to apply for $500 annual permits and open their properties to inspection by county code enforcement officers.
In the end, though, Metzler's group, known as FARMS, won big concessions. Things could have been worse.
A year ago, commissioners passed an ordinance that banned all commercial grows on smaller lots — new or old — and limited the size of farms on larger lots in rural residential zones.
But, Metzler's group pushed back by successfully appealing to the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals, which ruled earlier this year that the county failed to give proper notice to landowners possibly impacted by the new rules.
The regulations adopted on Wednesday were a re-do, but this time the rules were far less restrictive. To make sure proper notice was given this time, the county sent notices via tax bills to all county property owners.
As before, people who grow 12 or fewer plants for personal use are not affected by the regulations. Also, the new rules don't apply to residents of Grants Pass, where outdoor growing of any amount is banned.
Marijuana is big business in the county, which is home to nearly 1,700 medical marijuana grow sites — the second most in Oregon, after Jackson County — and more than 150 recreational marijuana farms, some of them large-scale.
The county's concessions didn't stop a parade of growers from telling commissioners Dan DeYoung and Lily Morgan that they were damaging the industry, stifling the local economy and were generally anti-marijuana. As he has throughout the process, Commissioner Simon Hare recused himself because his family owns farmland in the Illinois Valley that could become more valuable due to the new restrictions.
Morgan replied that she and DeYoung inherited the issue when they took office nearly two years ago, when a new ordinance was ready for adoption, courtesy of the previous board. They chose delay, however.
"We really spent a lot of time listening to people on both sides," Morgan said, adding, "I'm not trying to put anybody out of business."
The proposed regulations are a response to hundreds of grow sites that proliferated after Oregon voters legalized recreational marijuana in 2014, leading to a flood of complaints about odor, unsightly fences and crime.
Morgan pointed out that half the county population voted against legalization and that she has to listen to constituents on both sides of the issue, including neighbors who oppose pot farms in their rural neighborhoods.
The state allows counties to put "time, place and manner" restrictions on marijuana farms, and that's what the county has been trying to do.
Most of the testimony was against the county's regulations. Several people felt that the county was discriminating against the industry, which, many said, brought needed income to one of the poorest counties in the state.
"You're doing everything you can to thwart this industry," said Peter Gendron, president of the Oregon SunGrowers Guild.
Others predicted the county's efforts would be for naught if it was smell they were trying to control, since the burgeoning hemp industry could dwarf the cannabis industry. Hemp, pot's tame cousin, not only looks just like marijuana, it smells like it, too.
Some growers thanked the board for listening. Medical grower Shayne Christen said it appeared that the board was "coming across more level-headed" with its revisions.
County resident Larry Ford, who is not a grower, said he has several marijuana farms near his home and that he knows at least half of them are not legal.
"Without regulation, how do you go after the ones that are not doing it properly?" he said. "You need to identify the ones that are not compliant."
DeYoung responded to concerns that the regulations interfered with the property rights of growers. Instead, he asked about the rights of their neighbors.
"They (neighbors) built the house of their dreams," he said. "What about their dreams? What about their rights? What about their private property rights?"
DeYoung also didn't see how the new regulations would hamper current legal growers.
"I don't see where it's putting anybody out of business," he said.
One grower worried that his failure to have adequate electrical service might mean his right to grow would be taken away. County assistant legal counsel Augustus Ogu responded that people would be given time to remedy code violations. Morgan said health and safety violations would be the priority.
After the hearing, Metzler said minor changes still were called for, but that she didn't foresee her group appealing the new rules. She was happy that the restrictions targeted illegal operations.
"It helps identify who the illegal growers are," she said. "It levels the playing field."
A member of her group, grower Andrew Harper of the Jerome Prairie area, said the new regulations won't affect him because the county at the last minute pulled the requirement that even existing grow sites be set back at least 150 feet from neighboring homes.
"Their taking the 150-foot setback out was pretty big," Harper said.
Takilma farmer Matt Miller said he didn't like new regulations on an emerging industry, but that he wasn't overly concerned. He said it was a matter of jumping through hoops.
"None of this really bothers me or scares me," he said.
Miller, operator of Millerville Farms, agreed that the new rules would provide information for law enforcement to identify legal and illegal growers.
"It's a great way to eliminate the black market," he said.
And he said he's looking for good things to happen in general.
"The best weed in the world is grown in Takilma," he said.
Metzler said the future looks bright. She talked about working with the county on marijuana-related tourism, including farm tours.
"We're actually very hopeful for what's ahead," she said. "This county has listened."
Morgan warned that someone else might appeal the county's new ordinances and that there may yet be a citizen-initiated ballot measure calling for a more restrictive ban.
"I hope both sides continue to work with us," she said. "Communication's the key."
Final copies of the new regulations are to be posted to the county's website, at co.josephine.or.us, when signed. They go into effect in 90 days.
Reach reporter Shaun Hall at 541-474-3722 or firstname.lastname@example.org.