Planning commissioners to Bainbridge council: Don't follow commission's recommendation on new marijuana regulations

A three-member minority of the Bainbridge Island Planning Commission is asking the city council to ignore the planning commission's recommendation on where marijuana-growing businesses can be allowed on the island.

The plea came via a dissenting opinion that was emailed to city council members less than a week after the planning commission voted 4-3 in mid-March to finalize proposed regulations on marijuana businesses on Bainbridge.

In the rare minority report, planning commissioners Maradel Gale, Julie Kreigh and John Thomas said they didn't agree with the decision to allow marijuana farms on land with residential zoning.

The three commissioners also said the majority of the planning commission was wrong to view marijuana as an agricultural crop, which, under the city's existing regulations, would be protected under "Right to Farm" regulations.

In their minority report, the three commissioners asked the council to change city regulations to prevent marijuana growing operations from being protected as an agricultural crop.

The Bainbridge city council will begin its discussion tonight of a proposed ordinance that would allow the growing, processing and legal retail sale of marijuana.

Initiative 502, approved by Washington voters in November 2012, made recreational marijuana legal under state law.

Though the city previously adopted interim regulations on marijuana, those rules are set to expire on May 25.

Now new regulations, under development for three months by the planning commission, have been passed along to the city council.

The proposed restrictions would ban collective gardens for medical marijuana; allow a retail pot shop (Bainbridge has been allotted a single marijuana sales outlet by the state) within the zoning set for general retail businesses; allow marijuana processing in Bainbridge's business/industrial area near Day Road; and allow outdoor or greenhouse marijuana farms in the R-0.4 zoning district, a residential zone that allows one house per acre.

Other restrictions adopted by the state would also apply to any marijuana businesses on Bainbridge, including a ban on any processing, producing or sales within 1,000 feet of public parks, childcare centers, playgrounds, schools and other public facilities.

The draft ordinance under consideration by the council would also prohibit any marijuana-related uses on city-owned property. The prohibition would including growing, processing and other activities.

The city owns roughly 60 acres of agricultural land, and the land is managed by the nonprofit Friends of the Farms and subleased to farmers, who now grow crops that include grapes, onions, beans, garlic, sweet corn and broccoli.

It was the prospect of allowing legal marijuana farms on residentially zoned land, however, that split the planning commission.

In the minority report prepared by the three planning commissioners who voted against the idea, the trio said the most divisive discussion revolved around the message sent by voters in their approval of I-502.

Bainbridge voters approved the ballot measure for legal pot by a landslide marked by more than 70 percent approval, but the three commissioners recalled in their report the opinion of one citizen who suggested the measure would have failed by the same margin on Bainbridge if residents knew marijuana could be grown here on residential land.

The planning commission had earlier considered restricting grow operations to business/industrial zones, but city staff said that with the limited amount of land with that zoning available for marijuana farms, restricting marijuana production operations to business/industrial zones would be a de facto ban on marijuana farming on Bainbridge.

As it stands, the proposed ordinance would limit marijuana farms to the smallest allowed under state rules.

The proposed ordinance would limit marijuana farms to Tier 1, which under state regulations, means less than 2,000 square feet of plant canopy. A minor site plan and design review permit would also be required for such operations on Bainbridge.

Three of the seven commissioners were adamant that marijuana grow operations be not allowed on residentially zoned land.

The three complained that the recommendation from the commission's majority did not put restrictions on the number of employees who will be involved with grow operations, employee parking or potential traffic.

The trio also noted that grow operations could pose personal and neighborhood safety issues, and the three again called for limiting farms to business/industrially zoned areas.

"This legislative designation, to allow marijuana to be grown in one of our residential zones, is really for the financial gain of a very few people who will be able to take advantage of this zoning amendment," the commissioners added in their minority report. "Since this type of agriculture is not for the production of products that can be widely sold to, used and enjoyed by the citizens of this community, the real motive for commercial marijuana production is speculative financial gain."

The majority said their recommendation was a balanced and "deliberate, cautious approach," and that residential zoning where marijuana operations could be located makes up about half of the island's zoning, and noted that such businesses would face additional restrictions as well as having to follow the city's general laws on odor, light and noise pollution.

Much of the debate around marijuana grow operations on residential land has been spurred by proponents and opponents of a potential legal marijuana garden on Old Mill Road.

Alexander Scott has filed an application under the name of Quince Farm with the state for a license to grow marijuana on land that his family has farmed for 25 years.

His operation would be housed in a 500-square-foot greenhouse on Old Mill Road, but the proposal for a marijuana production business in the neighborhood has alarmed some of his neighbors.

Susan Wilmot, who lives on Old Mill Road, tried to rally islanders against the idea of allowing marijuana farms on residentially zoned land during the planning commission's review of proposed marijuana business regulations.

Wilmot told commissioners that such operations could lead to crime, as well as cause odor, traffic and water run-off problems.

Not all on the commission were convinced, though.

In an email responding to Wilmot's concerns, Commissioner Jon Quitslund said prohibitions on the growing and sale of marijuana "only endorses the continuation of illicit growing and selling.

"I am in favor of being honest about the fact that, even on Bainbridge, we have a black market supplying recreational users of marijuana," Quitslund wrote. "No one can know in advance if the new policies will discourage sellers and customers in the illicit and unregulated market, but I want to honor that intention and give the new program a chance to work."

"As the new program develops, the existing arrangements for production and sale of medical marijuana are going to be phased out. Marijuana does benefit many people living with serious illness and chronic pain, and some medical marijuana products involve therapeutic chemicals that have nothing to do with getting high," he added. "In my view, also, marijuana is less dangerous, for young people and for the public in general, than alcohol, which is widely advertised and available in all sorts of stores, bars, restaurants, etc. We have a sorry history of irrationality where guilty pleasures are concerned, and laws that seem irrational and fail to achieve their intended purposes invite scofflaw behavior."

In a response, Wilmot said the question was about zoning and not people's views on marijuana.

"I feel, as do many others, that it is simply madness to put a commercial, controlled substance production facility into a residential neighborhood," she wrote in an email that was also sent to city council members.

Wilmot also added that the black market for marijuana will also grow.

"I work for Safeway," Wilmot continued, "and with the advent of liquor sales in markets, our store has been the victim of organized crime rings coming to the island and stealing liquor, as do locals and local teens. There is a bigger black market of liquor now due to its wider availability and required taxes. Safeway was open 24 hours a day, but now we have to close at night because of liquor theft.

"Think about it: A huge corporation in a big building with cameras and employees on duty in a commercial zone had to close at night due to widespread theft of liquor. What kind of target will these less powerful cash-only production facilities make in our family neighborhoods?"

It's not exactly clear how unpopular the idea of a marijuana growing operation is on Old Mill Road.

Scott informally polled his neighbors on his proposal for a grow operation, and went door to door to talk to Old Mill Road residents about his plan.

He has since submitted more than a dozen letters of support from residents in the neighborhood, and by his estimate, 80 percent of those who live there do not object to his plan.

Supporters said the scale of the operation would fit with the neighborhood, and would help keep the agriculture tradition alive on the island.

One neighbor wrote: "The faster we normalize marijuana production, the better."

Another wrote: "I-502 passed by a majority of voters in this state and was approved by over 70 percent of island voters. Those voters who voted against it have already had their say, and they lost the election ... Any opinion that growing marijuana is 'unmitigatably obnoxious' can have no weight at this point in the process. Mr. Scott is within his legal rights and should be granted his permits."

At tonight's council meeting, the council will give its first reading of the proposed ordinance on marijuana rules. The meeting begins at 7 p.m. at city hall.

A final vote and public hearing is expected to be scheduled for Monday, April 28.


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