Politics & Government

To grow or not to grow. Benton County confronts the pot question

One way or another, the Benton County Commission is about to make a lot of people very unhappy.

The county's conflicted relationship with legal pot comes to a head Tuesday when the commission considers a permanent ban on new marijuana production and processing. It would also compel existing growers to move indoors.

Whether they approve, reject or modify the ban, Commissioners Jerome Delvin, Shon Small and Jim Beaver will ruffle feathers.

For more than a year, a battle has raged between marijuana opponents and supporters.

The former complain about crime, inappropriate siting and the impact on neighborhoods. The latter say it's time to embrace marijuana, legalized in Washington when voters approved Initiative 502 in 2012, as a viable business and a source of tax revenue and jobs.

Opponents have been on the winning side since last fall, when the commission first banned new retail stores and later passed a six-month moratorium against new processing and production.

Marijuana mature plant
A groomed and maturing marijuana plant sits in one of three growing bays of the nearly 11,000-square-foot Pure Green indoor greenhouse facility in Finley. Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

The ordinances, if approved, will cement the moratorium and put Benton County on similar footing to Franklin County and the cities of Kennewick, Richland, West Richland and Prosser, which have bans in place.

The ban would not affect The Garden LLC's move to open Nirvana Cannabis, a retail store, in a former home on Arena Road, just outside West Richland city limits. It would limit, but not outlaw, growth plans of the 50-plus businesses that currently hold production and processing licenses issued by the state's Liquor and Cannabis Control Board, aka the LCB.

The proposed ban is deeply polarizing. The county's own planning commission opposed it on a 3-2 vote after a contentious hearing on April 10. Public comment was equally divided between sides, a symmetry that underscores just how divisive the issue had become.

The planning board, which advises the elected commission, expressed reservations, saying the county needs a measured approach that ensures medical marijuana users won't be harmed by the new rules. They too would have to bring their plants indoors.

Chair Dean Burows said its vote against the ban may carry little weight.

"I know the county commissioners are going to go back and do whatever they're going to do on this one," he said.

Door left open

I-502 was unpopular in eastern Washington and failed by more than 50 percent in both Benton and Franklin counties. After it passed statewide, most Mid-Columbia jurisdictions enacted rules barring marijuana businesses.

Benton County did not take that step, leaving the door open to retail outlets, growing operations and processing businesses. In a little-understood feature of Washington's marijuana rules, the Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board licenses businesses regardless of local regulations.

Marijuana Clone room
Pure Green employees Ryan Groves, left, and Branden Owens work together snipping starter plants from a mother plant to create clone plants for use by medical patients recently at the indoor greenhouse grow facility in Finley. Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

Benton County, lacking a ban, saw marijuana retail and production businesses flock to its unincorporated areas. Finley, home to much of the county's industrial land, has 14 licensed producers, a concentration some residents find jarring.

Interestingly enough, as Benton County struggles with regulating a newly legalized industry, its neighbors are reconsidering their initial stands.

Benton City lifted its moratorium against marijuana businesses in late 2016, seeing an economic opportunity.

Prosser imposed a ban and just this month, a group of Richland residents began gathering signatures on a referendum that could put a repeal before the city's voters in November. Legalize Richland, led by the Benton County Libertarian Party, is marketing its effort as a freedom-of-choice initiative that is good for the economy.

Pros and cons

Late last summer, with cannabis in full bloom in Finley, the distinctive skunky smell wafted across the community. Residents reported being sickened by the smell and complained they could no longer enjoy their homes and yards. Lance Hahn, the Finley school superintendent, reported the smell permeated schools and ball fields.

Marijuana clone plants
Marijuana plants of varying stages of growth sit in one of three bays at the Pure Green indoor greenhouse grow facility in Finley. The workers there create clone plants by snipping off starters from mother plants. Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

"We are sick, our property is useless and our riverbank in accessible. Something needs to be done to stop (it)," one resident told the planning board.

Gene Mercer is a Finley businessman who supports a legal, well-run industry. He bought tracts of industrial land from the Port of Kennewick and sold several to indoor growing operations. He sees a bright economic future for the neighborhood if the two sides can find a way to live together.

Benton County's proposed ban doesn't do that, he said.

It forces outdoor growers indoors, halts expansion plans and removes marijuana from the state's definition of agriculture.

Mercer wants the commission to consider earlier plans to allow commercial cultivation with oversight by the region's Clean Air Agency to control odors.

"We don't want to be the wild west. That is not what anybody has ever alluded to," said Mercer, who has gathered hundreds of signatures on a petition calling on the county to rescind its moratorium, counterbalancing comparable petitions calling for a stronger ban.

But he accuses the county's all-Repubican commission from taking its orders from the Benton County Republican Party, which has formally called for it to "abate" marijuana.

"This is the first step," Mercer said.

Marijuana clone snip
The Benton County Commission voted Tuesday to ban new marijuana production and processing facilities, joining Franklin County and the cities of Kennewick, Pasco, Prosser, Richland and West Richland. Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

But Bill Berkman, chair of the Benton County Republican Party, is actively working on the marijuana issue, helping West Richland resident in their effort to stop Nirvana Cannabis from opening there. Still, he has his own concerns about the proposed production and processing ban.

Driving growers indoors should eliminate the unsightly fences that shield plants from public view. And it will probably reduce criminal activity, such as plant poaching. But Berkman doubts indoor growing will solve the smell issue.

"My fear is it's an experiment," he said.

A grower's point of view

Pure Green, aka Biggest Little Shop of Fun, grows organic cannabis for the recreational and medical market in a three-bay, 10,000-square-foot warehouse on Highway 397 in Finley. The set-up allows it to harvest four to six times a year.

Pure Green employs eight and would add 30 to 40 more if it could complete a planned processing facility, said Woody Conter, head cultivator. Conter said the county's temporary moratorium has stymied its expansion. Nevertheless, it will stay in Benton County, ban or no ban.

"I just hope that they really lift this," he said. "We would stay here. There are other processors in the state that we could sell our product to.".

Can a 'nuisance' impact property values

Berkman said failing to act on outdoor production could cost Benton County far more than the paltry amount it receives from the state in marijuana-related excise taxes, $142,000 in the first three months of 2018.

Residents who believe marijuana production, processing and sales are impacting their homes and businesses could ask the county to reduce the assessed values that determine how much they pay in property taxes. Finley represents about three percent of Benton County’s total tax base.

Marijuna grow file
Marijuana plants loom over an 8-foot fence at an outdoor growing site on the Old Inland Highway outside Prosser. Tri-City Herald file

There isn't a history of Washington property owners appealing property tax values because of marijuana-related issue, largely because the industry is so new. But local nuisances are grounds to appeal a property tax assessment, a Seattle property tax attorney confirmed.

And Benton County isn't the only community with conflict over siting, smells and related production issues. Last year, a 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling out of Colorado affirmed a pot farm can be sued for smells and other nuisances that harm property values, overturning a lower court ruling.

In another widely watched case, the Wisconsin Department of Revenue ruled that neighbors of a mega dairy were entitled to a property tax reduction because of the dairy's negative impact.

The meeting

The Benton County Commission meets at 9 a.m. Tuesday, May 1, at the county courthouse, 620 Market St., Prosser. The meeting is shared by video conference at the Benton County Justice Center, 7122 W. Okanogan Place, Kennewick. Public comment is accepted from both locations.

Wendy Culverwell: 509-582-1514