Deschutes County is one step closer to asking voters to decide if future recreational marijuana growing and processing operations should be banned in unincorporated areas.

On Wednesday, commissioners asked staff to prepare an ordinance that would put a moratorium on new applications for marijuana growing or processing facilities until residents could vote on the issue in the November 2020 election. The commission vote is scheduled to take place Aug. 19.

While other Oregon counties opted out of permitting marijuana businesses when it was initially legalized in 2014, Deschutes County, which legalized marijuana in 2016 after a brief moratorium, appears to be the first county trying to reverse its decision to allow it.

If the commission votes to approve the ordinance, the county would essentially not permit any new application until the election but would continue to process pending applications in the rural part of the county.

Existing businesses, as well as any kind of marijuana operation in a city, would not be affected regardless of whether voters decide to opt out of approving marijuana business or not. Medical marijuana would also not be affected.

The move is a way to address the concerns of residents who, through pages of public comment, said the industry is disturbing their way of life and curb the amount of county staff time spent on land use appeals. It is also a chance to ask the residents of Deschutes County, who have been sharply divided on the topic of marijuana, once and for all whether they want more marijuana growing in rural areas.

“I’ve been holding onto the idea of reasonable (regulations) in support of rural residents … that’s been the goal: to protect the rural areas,” said Commissioner Tony DeBone. “There hasn’t been a lot of common ground on two different worlds here,” he said, referring to proponents of the marijuana industry and rural residents who are against it.

“There’s just been no listening to the other side,” DeBone continued. “We haven’t seen a lot of bridges being made over time.”

While the county has handled several land use appeals, the timing of the opt-out is largely in response to an appeal filed with the state Land Use Board of Appeals from the Deschutes County Farm Bureau and representatives of the marijuana industry. The appeal challenges a set of recently-adopted rules that govern where and how marijuana production can occur in rural parts of the county.

The petitioners say the rule changes, adopted in 2018, are unconstitutional. The county must respond to the appeal by Sept. 3.

The commission decided to temporarily withdraw those rules earlier this year to reconsider changes to the amendments. But some on the commission now believe the best way to respond to the land use appeal is to repeal the challenged amendments and put the issue of whether future marijuana production and processing should be allowed in rural areas up to the vote of the people.

The timing is also right, said Commissioner Patti Adair. Even with approval from the county, someone would still need to get a license from the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, which stopped processing applications in June 2018 to handle a monthslong backlog.

“This issue really needs to go back to the voters,” Adair said.

While Commissioner Phil Henderson said he would support an opt-out, he questioned the wisdom of repealing the contested amendments entirely. Henderson said in general he feels the challenged amendments are still reasonable, and would hate to “reinvent the wheel” with new amendments in the event that Deschutes County did not vote to prohibit future marijuana facilities.

“To throw out all the body of work would be a separate issue to me,” Henderson said.

DeBone disagrees, saying that moving forward fighting the appeal would only muddle the issue before the election.

“I see more of it as the voter population having a clear question — do we want processing?” DeBone said.

Unanimous or not, if the commission votes to repeal the amendments, the petitioners in the land use appeal would be required to file another notice to appeal, said Assistant County Counsel Adam Smith. But if the commission votes to keep the amendments, the county could be defending itself ahead of an election over rules that may be irrelevant by the end.

The LUBA appeal also carried the possibility of creating precedent by defining what a “reasonable regulation” on marijuana is — a term, in state statute, that is considered to be vague. “(Deschutes County) would be in the position of making state law that wouldn’t necessarily have any impact in Deschutes County,” Smith said.

The commission will vote on both the amendments and the opt-out at its Aug. 19 meeting.

— Reporter: 541-633-2160, bvisser@bendbulletin.com

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