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Columbia County wants extended moratorium on marijuana dispensaries

Public hearings anticipated as county looks to hold off on permitting dispensaries and grow areas

Photo Credit: COURTNEY VAUGHN - Columbia County commissioners Tony Hyde (left) and Henry Heimuller (right) listen to comments during a public meeting last month. County commissioners anticipate public hearings as they consider new regulatory options for marijuana dispensaries and grow sites in the county.

Columbia County commissioners are considering extending a moratorium on marijuana dispensaries and could be looking to restrict outdoor grow sites.

Along with most cities in the county, the county commissioners enacted a moratorium on all marijuana dispensaries in unincorporated areas last spring.

The moratorium is set to expire May 1, but Henry Heimuller, chair of the board of commissioners, said the three-member board is likely to extend that in anticipation new action from the Legislature.

“We asked for staff to further investigate our options,” Heimuller said, referring to an afternoon staff meeting held Wednesday, Jan. 28. “Rather than us enacting new rules today that will turn around and be circumvented by legislative action, [we want to] wait and see what the new rules are gonna be.”

Senate Bill 1531, which dictated new rules for medical marijuana facilities in 2014, stipulated that cities and counties could enact moratoriums on dispensaries until May 1. Todd Dugdale, director of the county's land use department, said there is a provision that allows the county to extend that even further.

“There are additional rules that allow for an extension of that moratorium for another 120 days,” Dugdale said, noting the county could extend that an additional six months.

In addition to holding off on permitting dispensaries, Heimuller said the commission is exploring a nuisance ordinance that would restrict where residents in unincorporated areas could grow marijuana.

Heimuller said some people have complained of living next door to grow operations, citing allergies from the weeds.

“I've been told it attracts vermin and rats,” Heimuller noted. He said the ordinance is being considered “to protect neighborhoods.”

“It's not that we have any intention to [supersede] anything that has become state law … We're trying to make all the right decisions and not do any kind of knee-jerk reaction," he said.

The county will have to hold public hearings before taking action on the moratorium and potential nuisance ordinance, but at least one county resident said he's already run into roadblocks.

Grant Gratrix is a managing member of Cedar Grove Organic Herb Farm, LLC. His property is registered as a grow site for medical marijuana with the state.

Gratrix said when he tried to get an outbuilding on the property permitted through the county, he couldn't.

“I've been growing outside there [since summer 2014],” Gratrix explained. “When I bought the building there was a small 1,000-square-foot barn attached that was never permitted. The permit has passed all the plans, but the director is holding it.”

Dugdale said Gratrix indicated the barn would be used as an additional grow space, which requires a home occupation permit.

He tried to get an agricultural exemption from the county, to no avail.

“It really doesn't fit neatly within the definition of farm use, that's why we made the determination that it's a home occupation,” Dugdale said. “The point is that the county has jurisdiction over land use and we have to try to make these uses fit into our zoning scheme. The issuance of a medical marijuana grow site doesn't grant permission to violate any local land use rules.”

Gratrix said he's aware of other grow sites in the county, who are likely operating under the county's radar. Dugdale said the county hasn't issued any home occupation permits for marijuana grow sites to date.