County eases restrictions on marijuana business

Published on Wed, Apr 23, 2014 by Ian Ferguson

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A new zoning ordinance passed by the county council will allow marijuana businesses to be located in dense neighborhoods as long as they are at least 300 feet away from the nearest residence and 1,000 feet away from places where children and families gather.

The new interim ordinance replaces an earlier ordinance that kept pot businesses out of areas with eight or more residences within 1,000 feet. Council elected to revise the original ordinance after marijuana business applicants said it was too restrictive.

The revised ordinance was introduced at last month’s council meeting, and it was adopted April 22 with a 6–1 vote following a public hearing. Councilmember Sam Crawford voted no. 

“I think council has done a good job working on this, but I’m still not convinced that eliminating the 1,000-foot setback from a cluster of eight or more homes was the way to go,” Crawford said.

County residents who spoke at the public hearing voiced a range of opinions on the new ordinance and recreational marijuana in general. Some thanked the council for easing its restrictions. Others warned of the dangers of marijuana on adolescent brains. In response, councilmember Barbara Brenner pointed out that marijuana is only legal for those over 18, and councilmember Ken Mann said he thought legalization would make it easier to keep marijuana away from minors.

The interim ordinance is the latest step taken by council to regulate the marijuana industry in unincorporated Whatcom County. The Washington State Liquor Control Board, which regulates the marijuana industry at the state level, requires business applicants to undergo a background check to obtain a license. It also lays out zoning and other rules to keep marijuana businesses far from sensitive areas such as schools, parks and community centers. 

County government was content to go by those rules alone until the state attorney general released an opinion in January that local jurisdictions can enforce stricter regulations on the marijuana industry. Council enacted an emergency 60-day moratorium on all marijuana businesses, and has been working ever since to create a regulatory framework.

The new interim ordinance has a six-month lifespan unless it is extended. Its purpose is to give planning and development services time to review marijuana laws and come up with more permanent rules.

Some of the changes adopted in the new ordinance are outlined below:

Density restriction: The original ordinance required that no more than eight residences could be located within 1,000 feet of a proposed marijuana business location, but the new ordinance eliminates that requirement.

Building size: The original ordinance did not restrict building size, but the new ordinance adds a 2,000-square-foot limit to new buildings in rural residential, rural residential island and rural zone districts. Existing buildings are excluded from the 2,000-foot limit but can’t exceed 10,000 feet. In rural zone districts, the size limit only applies on parcels that are 4.5 acres or smaller.

Setbacks from neighbors: The ordinance originally required a 300-foot buffer between buildings housing marijuana-related uses and nearby residences. A revision allows business owners to waive the requirement if they get notarized consent signed by the owners of all residences within 300 feet and an administrative use permit from planning and development services. A second revision changed the setbacks from 300 to 200 feet in agriculture and rural forestry zone districts, as well in existing buildings in all zones.

50 percent processing requirement: The original ordinance required businesses that process marijuana in rural industrial manufacturing zone districts to get at least 50 percent of their marijuana from sources in Whatcom County. Council voted unanimously to remove that requirement.

Retail floor space: Council voted unanimously to add a provision that marijuana retail stores can be no larger than 2,500 square feet.