County bans new marijuana businesses in some areas

EVERETT — The Snohomish County Council on Wednesday voted 4-1 to ban new pot businesses in certain rural areas.

The decision comes after nine months of public testimony from green-clad marijuana business supporters and neighbors opposed to their operations moving in nearby. The council essentially made permanent a moratorium that was first enacted last fall in response to resident concerns.

The ban applies to new recreational marijuana businesses in so-called R-5 zones, rural areas where the county typically allows only one house per five acres.

The council action also prohibits new medical marijuana dispensaries or growing collectives along a one-mile stretch of Highway 9 in the Clearview area.

Under the new rules, recreational marijuana businesses will continue to be allowed in other agricultural areas and in business and industrial zones of unincorporated Snohomish County. There are about 64,000 acres where marijuana enterprises are still permitted.

In the agricultural areas, marijuana businesses will be required to follow the same rules as other agricultural businesses.

In related but separate action, the council also banned pot operations on the Tulalip Reservation at the request of tribal leaders.

Marijuana businesses that were already operating in the county’s rural areas, or were in the permitting process under state and county rules before the moratorium, will be mostly unaffected by the new rules.

County officials do not know how many businesses fall into that category and will be allowed to proceed. But Jamie Curtismith, an advocate for local growers, said about a dozen businesses are unaffected by the new law.

Six are already legally established in the R-5 zones under state and county rules, she said. The other six are in the permitting process and will likely be allowed to move forward.

Democratic Councilman Brian Sullivan was alone in voting against the ban on Wednesday. He said the majority of people in his district supported legalizing marijuana, so he felt strongly about allowing it. Now, Sullivan said, he is concerned about legal issues that could follow the county decision.

Voting in favor of the ordinance were Democrats Dave Somers, Stephanie Wright and Terry Ryan, and Republican Ken Klein.

Curtismith said there are 36 businesses in the grower group that might challenge the ban in court. They invested money to launch their businesses and were working through a rigorous permitting process, she said, but the rules were changed before they were able to get up and running.

“People are trying to build new businesses on land-use rules that are like quicksand,” Curtismith said. “It was basically a bait and switch.”

Council Chairman Somers said he originally believed the county could find a way to allow marijuana in the R-5 zone. But because of the outpouring of opposition, he decided to support the ban.

Councilman Terry Ryan said he, too, was swayed by homeowners who wanted to protect their investments. Many people who spoke at public hearings in opposition to marijuana businesses live in areas that are zoned R-5.

“I’m going to side with families,” Ryan said.

After hearing hours of testimony from people in the newly legal industry and their neighbors, the council on March 4 extended the moratorium to allow more time to consider permanent rules.

Statewide voters in 2012 approved Initiative 502, which created the state’s legal recreational marijuana industry, but many local jurisdictions have imposed permanent or temporary bans, sometimes partial ones, on marijuana businesses. In 2013, the County Council enacted policies for pot businesses in unincorporated areas.

After people voiced concerns, the council in October enacted two emergency ordinances, one addressing recreational marijuana businesses and the other related to medical-marijuana dispensaries and gardens.

Dan Howard, a member of a pot-opposition group from Monroe’s Wagner Lake area, said he thought the council’s decision on Wednesday was fair because it bans marijuana in some rural areas but also treats it like any agricultural product in others.

“I look at this as a win-win,” he said.

Amy Nile: 425-339-3192; Twitter: @AmyNileReports.

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