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Public to county: Pot moratorium a bad call

Residents denounce Columbia County's plans for marijuana moratorium

COURTNEY VAUGHN - Columbia County Commissioners Earl Fisher, Tony Hyde and Henry Heimuller respond to public comments Wednesday, April 8 during a public hearing on a proposed marijuana moratorium.

No moratorium on marijuana facilities was enacted Wednesday, April 8, but more than 80 people flooded a Columbia County courtroom to find out whether the county will impose a temporary restriction on medical and recreational marijuana dispensaries and grow sites.

Before opting to continue the public hearing until Wednesday, April 22, commissioners heard from more than 20 property owners who spoke emphatically about the impacts of medical marijuana and soon-to-be legalized recreational marijuana.

Columbia County is considering implementing a 120-day land use moratorium on new or expanded marijuana facilities. County staff have said in previous meetings the moratorium would likely be extended an additional five months.

The county’s existing moratorium on medical marijuana dispensaries is set to expire in May. The new moratorium would take effect July 1.

“We’re just buying some more time until the state of Oregon comes up with some rules and regulations about their marijuana program so we can implement them on a local level,” Glen Higgins, chief planner with the county’s Land Development Services department, explained Wednesday.

COURTNEY VAUGHN - Brian Smalley of St. Helens addresses the Columbia County Board of Commissioners to voice his concerns about the county restricting the growth and sales of medical marijuana.

Most who addressed the board said they felt the moratorium was unnecessary and was a thinly veiled attempt to circumvent the law. Several speakers suggested the county had plenty of time to come up with land use regulations during the current year-long moratorium, and said the current land laws in place for the state’s medical marijuana program should be sufficient.

Others said the proposed ordinance would prohibit property owners from legally taking part in the medical marijuana program, which is already permitted by state law.

Some who spoke weren’t clear on the intent, asking if every property in the county would be impacted.

Commissioners reiterated that only properties in unincorporated areas, which the county has jurisdiction over, would be impacted.

The proposed moratorium would restrict residents from establishing new outdoor grow sites or dispensaries of any kind. It would also prevent existing legally compliant grow sites from expanding. County attorney Robin McIntyre said after the meeting that some medical marijuana growers who grow in residential zones may have to provide proof of a home occupation permit from the county to be in compliance.

Commissioners said marijuana plants could be grown indoors, where they don’t pose a nuisance to neighbors.

One by one, speakers voiced disapproval of the moratorium.

“I use this medicine because it replaced 15 pills,” Nathan Hoffee, who identified himself as a veteran, told commissioners. He talked about the horror of taking psychoactive drugs linked to suicide that were prescribed to him, saying marijuana is a safer alternative.

His back toward a crowded room, Hoffee pressed the board to consider the problems with trying to grow plants indoors.

“My wife is allergic to marijuana,” he said “I can’t grow it indoors because of her reaction.”

Commissioner Tony Hyde was quick to point out that allergens associated with the plant are the same reason the county wants to restrict plants grown outdoors next to other residential properties.

Clatskanie resident Bill Buol said despite the county’s claims that it isn’t trying to interfere with the state’s legal medical marijuana program, the moratorium would do just that.

“When you say outdoor grows, you say you’re not messing with medical marijuana, but you are,” Buol said.

Commissioners insisted they had no intention of skirting the law, but simply wanted more time to figure out how the county should craft its own land use regulations to allow residents to comply with it.

“I think there is an assumption that we either like it or don’t like it, and that’s not the case,” Hyde said.

Not everyone was angry at the prospect of the restriction. Some applauded the county for taking more time to wait for new state laws to surface.

William Etter of Scappoose voiced concerns about the hazards associated with large marijuana harvest sites.

“What happens when there is a fire on a grow site that spills over into timberland. Who pays for that?” Etter asked. He shared stories from being a DEA agent and raiding large grow sites.

Despite applause from some homeowners who said they didn’t want to live next to neighbors growing marijuana, most said the county’s plan was counter-productive and would lead to lack of access for sick patients and high electric bills for those trying to replicate outdoor growing conditions in their homes.

The commission heard two hours of comment before continuing the hearing. Written comments may be submitted to the county until April 15.