EVERETT — A divided Snohomish County Council decided Wednesday to impose buffers and other new restrictions on pot stores, ending a moratorium in place since June.
A 3-2 council majority voted for a separation of 2,500 feet between any future marijuana retailers that open in unincorporated areas.
Councilman Terry Ryan, a Democrat from Mill Creek, voted with the majority. He said the regulations were designed to address the downsides of having pot businesses clustered along stretches of Highway 99 and the Bothell-Everett Highway. Other business owners had complained that an abundance of marijuana stores was making their commercial districts less appealing and less safe.
“This doesn’t have anything to do with one business versus another business,” Ryan said. “It’s about separation.”
The council’s two Republicans called the buffers unnecessary.
Councilman Nate Nehring, of Stanwood, summarized their argument: “I believe we should let the free market work here and let these businesses weed themselves out.”
“There is a reason that these retail marijuana shops have located where they have. There is demand there,” Nehring said. “What this ordinance does, is that it aims to push them to where there is little to no demand, flying in the face of any free-market argument. While I believe that the intentions here are good, this ordinance does not seem practical and is just another example of burdensome regulatory system that does nothing but stifle business.”
Councilman Sam Low, of Lake Stevens, warned of overregulation.
“It sends a very dangerous message to other businesses that they might be next,” Low said.
In June, the council imposed a six-month moratorium without warning, and it later was extended.
The move came after the state merged the marketplaces for medical and recreational marijuana. As part of that effort, the Liquor and Cannabis Board last year doubled the number of retail pot licenses available for unincorporated Snohomish County and several smaller cities.
Some would-be store owners were caught off guard. At least one had been planning to transition from a medical dispensary to a recreational store. Another owner was stuck after receiving an approval letter from the state and buying a commercial property in south Everett.
The council on Wednesday carved out exemptions to grandfather in those businesses.
“This is as good as the day could get right now,” said Justin Ruiz, who was unable to reopen his medical dispensary, Hypeherbally, last year after working closely throughout the application process with county planning staff.
The exemptions don’t apply to stores the county says opened in violation of the moratorium. Two stores are the subject of active code-enforcement cases on that front.
Snohomish County now has a bigger buffer than the 1,000-foot separation required in King and Pierce counties.
The new ordinance also prohibits pot stores from locating within 1,000 feet of future schools. That regulation would apply to land owned by school districts where there is a plan to develop a campus. It comes in addition to a 1,000-foot separation from existing schools already spelled out in state law.
The county’s new retail marijuana rules capped the total number of stores at 32 for unincorporated areas. The limit would come into play if the state opted to increase the number of permits.
The rules also make the stores a conditional use, leaving the decision up to the county hearing examiner. The examiner could impose special conditions to address issues such as lighting, noise and traffic. Nearby property owners would receive a notice before a public hearing.
Recreational sales and use of marijuana remains illegal under federal law. President Donald Trump suggested during his campaign that the question of legalization should be left up to states. The Justice Department under Attorney General Jeff Sessions has yet to give any clear signals about how it plans to approach marijuana enforcement.
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @NWhaglund.