Matt Toepfer has been growing marijuana, primarily for medical patients, in Deschutes County for 15 years. But when the county approved recreational marijuana production operations in rural portions of the county, Toepfer — who operates a 3,000-square-foot greenhouse about 3 miles west of La Pine — was unable to convert to recreational growing due to the way his property is zoned.
As other recreational marijuana stores in Deschutes County begin to vertically integrate using crops grown at their greenhouses, Toepfer, who co-owns High Desert Botanicals in La Pine, said his store is struggling to keep pace.
“The county needs to think of all the people who have been doing this for years, before all the Florida (growers) show up, all the Pennsylvania people show up,” Toepfer said.
Toepfer’s comments reflect some of the growing pains Deschutes County has dealt with in the 14 months since the county commission legalized growing operations in rural parts of the county with a rigorous set of rules around time, place and manner. Growers and advocates for the burgeoning industry complain that many of the county’s regulations are too onerous and, in some cases, a violation of Oregon’s right-to-farm rules.
However, the owners of neighboring properties say the rules fall short of what’s necessary to protect them from the side effects of an industry that’s still illegal at the federal level.
“The current rules do a pretty good job of threading the needle,” said Nick Lelack, community development director for Deschutes County.
However, the requirements around topics like odor and noise were always designed to be revisited. To that end, the county’s community development department is beginning to reach out to industry groups, neighbors and utilities, soliciting feedback about which elements of the county’s program are working, and which need to be revisited.
On Thursday, the Deschutes County community development department held two public forums — one for marijuana producers and retailers, one for the owners of properties adjacent to marijuana grow facilities in Deschutes County — in order to help gauge concerns on both sides and work toward a potential change in the county’s approach to approving marijuana facilities.
“We’ll want to be thorough,” said Phil Henderson, Deschutes County commissioner.
Last September, Deschutes County finalized its rules for marijuana production, processing, retail and wholesale operations outside urban growth boundaries following a brief opt-out, making it one of 14 Oregon counties to set up specific rules for marijuana production by the end of 2016, according to Lelack. Measure 91, which legalized recreational marijuana in November 2014, allows individual counties to set “reasonable time, place and manner regulations” for establishments that grow and sell marijuana.
However, many of the other counties, mainly located west of the Cascades, interpreted those regulations differently than Deschutes County did. Lelack said that where some Western Oregon counties just required applicants to complete a “checklist” of items, Deschutes requires a more complicated land use process, one that mandates that neighboring property owners are notified and allows them to appeal staff decisions on marijuana facilities. Some of the restrictions, including those based on odor, are based on subjective standards around impact on neighbors rather than a checklist item.
As of the end of October, 27 marijuana production facilities have been approved by the county, along with three processing facilities and three wholesaling facilities. So far, just two applications have been denied, and two were withdrawn by the applicant. Peter Gutowsky, planning manager for Deschutes County, added that one of the two denied applications has been resubmitted in a more complete version.
Still, people working within the marijuana industry criticized some of the regulations as too onerous during the first public forum on Thursday, including the mandate that noise from equipment used to heat, cool or ventilate greenhouses must not exceed 30 decibels. Hunter Neubauer, co-owner of Oregrown Industries Inc., a cannabis company that operates a dispensary in Bend and an 84-acre grow operation on farmland near Tumalo, was one of several who argued that as long as marijuana is a legal crop in Oregon and Deschutes County, it should be treated like any other crop on land zoned for exclusive farm use.
“I think that’s being taken advantage of,” Neubauer said.
Still, Rob Bovett, legal council with the Association of Oregon Counties, said a big reason the rules around restrictions on farmland are different in each county is that the parcels that are zoned for farm use are very different in different parts of the state.
“If you’ve seen one Oregon county’s land use system, you’ve seen one Oregon county’s land use system,” he joked.
He said Deschutes County farmland tends to have relatively small lots that encourage rural residential development. Lelack added that Deschutes County’s climate causes sound to travel farther than it does in the western half of the state, due to fewer trees that buffer development.
During the second public forum on Thursday, Lelack said at least 50 people listened and spoke about the experience of living near a proposed or completed cannabis facility. He said their concerns ranged from access to water to dealing with the smell. In general, he said they wanted to see more restrictions around cannabis on farmland.
Several people who attended the meeting declined to comment on the record.
In addition to the public meetings, Deschutes County officials announced an online survey Friday designed to give residents an opportunity to weigh on the land use system. The survey will be active until Nov. 30. Lelack added that community development will meet with people in the water and power industries to get their feedback on working with marijuana production facilities for the rest of the month. Henderson added that the Deschutes County Commission will begin evaluating the findings in December, though he didn’t provide a timeline for possible rule changes.
“I think interest is increasing, rather than decreasing,” he said.
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