In a move sure to please few, the Benton County commission approved a six-month moratorium on new cannabis production and processing Tuesday morning.
The commission voted 2 to 0 to authorize four emergency ordinances, one for each of the zoning types where cannabis production and processing were previously allowed in the county’s unincorporated areas. The ordinances took effect on approval but will be the topic of a public hearing when the commission meets at 9 a.m. Dec. 5 for its regular weekly session at the Prosser courthouse.
Commissioners Jim Beaver and Shon Small voted for the ordinances; Jerome Delvin was excused.
The moratorium will expire at the end of six months unless the commission takes steps to extend it or make it permanent. Like the retail moratorium that preceded it, the production and processing moratorium does not affect the licenses already held by 47 cannabis producers and 35 processors in Benton County.
The county passed the retail ban after the Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board allowed Nirvana Cannabis Co. to transfer a license from Prosser to an Arena Road property in unincorporated Benton County that borders West Richland. Processors and producers came under scrutiny in October when the smell of the cannabis harvest compelled Finley residents to demand action from their county leaders.
Cannabis production does not enjoy the same privileges as traditional agriculture under the Washington Clean Air Act, said Robin Bresley Priddy, executive director of the independent Benton Clean Air Agency.
Traditional agriculture is only required to take reasonable steps to mitigate for odors. Non-exempt industries, including cannabis, are required to take stronger steps and can face fines and fees if they don’t meet state air quality standards, Priddy said. The Benton agency is complaint driven. Until this fall, it received few complaints about cannabis harvest smells. She said it is investigating best practices and what its peers are doing about the emerging issue.
Washington voters legalized recreational cannabis in 2012, largely because of support in the Puget Sound region. Initiative 502 failed locally, leading Kennewick, Pasco, Richland, West Richland and Franklin County to pass moratoriums against production, processing and sales. Benton County did not adopt a moratorium after being advised the step could lead to costly litigation. The net result was that Benton County became the only place in the area where cannabis businesses could operate legally, concentrating the industry in relatively small areas.
Some speculators have secured licenses in cities with moratoriums on the expectation the bans will be eliminated in the future.