Around 12 months ago, the Deschutes County Commission held its first public hearing related to an appeal of marijuana operation in the rural part of the county, the first test of the county’s newly minted regulations. Since that time, the commission has heard disputes on about 40 applications, ranging from small indoor gardens to much larger greenhouses.

However, with pot regulations likely to change in the upcoming months, the County Commission is contemplating a different approach to hearing appeals by neighbors concerned about marijuana. Commissioner Tony DeBone said he’d be in favor of adding time constraints to the proceedings, which can sometimes last more than four hours. The commission has also talked about shifting more of the hearings to hearings officers, which could reduce aggravation for the commission.

“It feels like we’re getting run over,” DeBone said following the latest marijuana-related hearing on Wednesday.

DeBone added that hearing fewer marijuana-related appeals would free up the commission to focus on other land use issues However, Commissioner Phil Henderson defended the commission’s approach, noting that listening to the concerns of the community regarding a controversial, newly legal industry is a big part of the job.

“I personally believe it’s our responsibility to hear as much as we possibly can,” Henderson said.

Growing more than four marijuana plants for recreational use requires land use approval in Deschutes County. After a prospective marijuana grower has their application approved by county staff, neighboring landowners are notified and have 12 days to appeal the decision. If there’s an appeal, the County Commission can opt to hear the land use appeal, or appoint a hearings officer to oversee the proceedings in their stead. Because the regulations are comparatively new, DeBone said the commission has been willing to hear as many of the appeals as possible, to clarify aspects of the county code for staff and future applicants.

“We made the statement that we would call these up and hear them as a board,” DeBone said.

Peter Gutowsky, planning manager for Deschutes County, said only two of the 37 county decisions on marijuana have come from hearings officers. One of those two cases involved a proposed marijuana facility near DeBone’s house, and he said he would have recused himself from the proceedings had the case been brought before the commission.

Cost is the most immediate advantage to the public hearings being overseen by the commission. Gutowsky said bringing in a hearings officer requires a $5,000 deposit, to be paid by the applicant. However, Gutowsky said the commission has waived the fees for applicants, in the interest of paving a clear path for a new industry.

Gutowsky added that having the commission hear cases also saves time. Deschutes County code requires a final local decision within 150 days of an application being deemed complete, and the time it takes to get a hearings officer lined up can cut into that timeline.

Perhaps most importantly, hearing cases helps the commissioners evaluate the marijuana rules they helped establish in 2016. Henderson pointed to municipal water use and odor mitigation as two areas that he understands better because of the hearings. Gutowsky added that direction from the commission helps his staff issue better guidelines to future applicants.

“We do diligently track the board’s decisions and carry them forward,” Gutowsky said.

A substantial shift in strategy will likely wait until after the county’s report on its marijuana regulations, expected near the end of the month. In the meantime, the county will look at imposing time restrictions on testimony.

“We’re trying to make sure it’s as succinct as possible without cutting into that right (to speak),” Henderson said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7818, shamway@bendbulletin.com

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