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Gaston Feed could switch to weed as store closes

COURTESY PHOTO - This screen shot of a Trulia ad shows that the Gaston Feed property is up for sale for $834,000 and promotes it as a marijuana grow opportunity.Last week’s Gaston City Council meeting brought two bombshells to this city of 700. The town will not only be losing its beloved long-time feed store — Gaston Feed — but a marijuana growing operation is currently the most likely business to replace it.  

Gaston Feed owner Dave Rohrer, who attended the council meeting, has had his store up for sale for about a year. But it was only recently that a potential buyer started the process to replace it with a marijuana-grow business.

The grow operation would be a lot closer to Gaston schools than many people would like, but according to state law, there’s currently not much the city can do about it.

Until the general election in November, Gaston cannot ban any marijuana-related businesses because such bans are subject to a public vote. And it’s unclear whether such a ban would affect businesses retroactively.

The passage of Measure 91 in the November 2014 election made it legal for licensed facilities to sell and produce recreational marijuana. The only cities eligible to enact a ban on such business activities through their city councils (by the law’s Dec. 24, 2015 deadline) were those in Oregon counties that voted no on Measure 91 by more than 55 percent.

Washington County voted yes on the measure, however, so its cities are required by law to put any ordinance prohibiting marijuana to a public vote at the next general election, which in this case isn’t until November.

While medical marijuana businesses would be grandfathered in and not affected by such a ban, it’s still not clear whether recreational growers and sellers in the city would be, according to Gaston City Attorney Ruben Cleaveland.

“It was actually pretty sneaky language put into Measure 91 in that the recreational marijuana industry would be legal and running before anyone could put a stop to it,” said Cleaveland. “The legislature did a little bit to help by allowing some moratorium provisions but without acting on those provisions as they evolved, this is a tough situation for cities such as Gaston.”

At their meeting last Wednesday, Jan. 13, the six Gaston councilors reviewed an Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) land-use compatibility form regarding a proposal from Leonard E. Jones Jr., who wants to use the Gaston Feed building at 102 Onion Lane as an indoor marijuana growing facility. On Trulia, a real-estate listing website, the property is listed for $834,000, and boasts “Indoor MARIJUANA GROW opportunity.” (See photo right.)

Anyone wanting to start a grow operation must be approved by the OLCC — not a city or county.

Through the form, the OLCC has asked whether Jones’s proposed business would violate any city rules. Since the proposed grow operation sits on industrial land and would fit within the guidelines of Gaston’s industrial use, it is not in any sort of violation, said Gaston City Recorder Wenonah Blanchette.

The major concern among city councilors and several meeting attendees — including Gaston Schools Superintendent Susan McKenzie — was the proposed operation’s proximity to Gaston’s K-12 school campus, said Blanchette.

A business that sells marijuana products cannot be within 1,000 feet of a school, but grow operations such as this one do not sell any retail products. So even though the building is only 800 feet from the closest school, it’s not violating the law.

Gaston councilors can still put a marijuana ban on the ballot in November, but it’s unclear whether a passed ban would affect recreational businesses that started up with OLCC licenses before then.

Medical marijuana businesses would not be affected by any future bans, but state law doesn’t give recreational marijuana the same protections, according to the League of Oregon Cities. “Recreational marijuana growers, processors, wholesalers and retailers are subject to a ban under HB 3400, even if those businesses are already operating at the time the ban was enacted,” according to League of Oregon Cities material on the topic.

But shutting down a business that’s already been operating would likely lead to an expensive and drawn-out legal battle, Cleaveland said.

Jones said he planned to grow recreational marijuana, not medical. Before he purchases the building, he said, he’s waiting to see if he can jump through all the legal hoops for a recreational grow site.

Rohrer bought Gaston Feed in 1992 and said he’ll close the business — which hasn’t made any money for the past few years, he said — in the next 90 days.

“If it’s not sold, I’ll probably store hay in it,” said Rohrer, who plans to retire soon. 

Ten to 15 potential buyers have toured the building, said Summit Real Estate agent Rick Pugh. But Jones is the first one to write up an offer — something he’s doing this week, Pugh said. 

Rohrer expects the sale to Jones to eventually go through.

Another interested party surfaced last week but hasn’t yet seen the building or made an offer, said Pugh. 

“We’ve had a number of people look at it, but they determined it’s a very improbable place to have a business that can make any money,” he said. 

Rohrer said it’s gotten too difficult for him to compete with big-box stores such as Coastal Farm & Ranch, Wilco and Walmart, which offer many of the same products. 

“I probably ran it five years too long,” he said. “But we did teach a lot of [Gaston teenagers] how to run a cash register, how to do warehouse work and how to run a store.”

Managing Editor Nancy Townsley contributed to this story.