WENATCHEE — Bright sunny days and crisp mornings and evenings make September and October two of the best months to be outdoors in North Central Washington unless, as many area residents have discovered, you can’t stand the smell of mature marijuana plants.
Lori Wisemore found that out the hard way last year when a state-sanctioned outdoor marijuana grow owned by Toleman Construction harvested its first crop, right across the street from her home in central Malaga.
“We didn’t notice the smell until September,” she said. “Then, September through the end of October it was bad. Bad. It permeated the house… You cannot sit outside here and barbecue and be with your family because of that smell.”
Her neighbor Laurie Hill agrees. “You go out the door and it’s like you have a skunk on your front doorstep,” she said.
In the tiny community of Plain, about 14 miles north of Leavenworth, residents have organized to prevent the company Alto Buddha from launching a growing operation in the center of town, next to a winery.
The company’s state growing license has yet to be issued. Its current location, about 600 feet from the town’s grocery store, hardware store and café, appears to meet other state distance requirements. The company has already installed a wood fence and outbuildings.
Residents fear the pungent smell will discourage tourism, present safety concerns for neighbors and flood the night with security lights in a town where even commercial street signs can’t be lit.
Some of the town’s most outspoken opponents of the grow say they’re not opposed to legal pot and even voted for Initiative 502, the 2012 that legalized recreational weed. But they don’t want it that close to the town’s only commercial business district.
Chelan County commissioners and staffers say they’ve received complaints from neighbors of pot growing and production operations all over the county.
Almost all the complaints have been about the smell, which hits its peak when the plants are mature and during harvest, which for outdoor operations comes in September through October. The problem is compounded by high-density growing methods that crowd hundreds of plants into a reduced space, even in outdoor grows.
Smell is a side effect that local rule makers say they weren’t expecting when they originally decided to treat newly legalized marijuana as any other ag product.
“The reality is that no one had been exposed to it in this type of setting before,” Chelan County Commissioner Keith Goehner said Friday. “Illegal grows weren’t as densely planted, so though there was a smell, it wasn’t as strong.”
The county has had a moratorium on new marijuana businesses in place since late September. It is set to expire in March.
The Chelan County Planning Commission meets Wednesday to weigh a staff proposal for a prohibition of marijuana growing and processing in unincorporated Chelan County.
The prohibition would also apply to existing businesses, which would have to close, Hank Lewis, the county's community development director, said Monday.
The prohibition would last until county commissioners choose to end it, Lewis said.
If the planning commission agrees with the staff proposal, county commissioners would take up the discussion and possibly vote at a public hearing Feb. 9.
More than 100 people, including pot growers and disgruntled citizens, packed a Nov. 9 meeting in Wenatchee when commissioners discussed the future of the moratorium.
Goehner, who is also a Chelan County cherry grower, said commissioners don’t want to put any of these newly legalized growers or processors out of business, but changing regulations have not been limited to brand-new ag industries.
“We’ve had it happen with other activities, where zoning has changed and it has precluded people from doing what they had done before,” Goehner said. “Even farming the way I have for the last 40 years, we’ve seen a lot of changes that have made it more and more difficult. That’s the changing regulatory landscape we’re all dealing with. Those are the things we have to sort out.”
That kind of talk worries Dave Wakefield, owner of Double Delicious, an indoor growing operation just off Malaga/Alcoa Highway in Malaga.
“The county would not only be messing with my business and my investment, they’re also messing with 30 of my employees,” he said. “They should have done their homework and said, ‘We don’t want to allow grows unless you are indoor and have a filtration system. Literally, I have spent millions of dollars on this facility. If you spend millions because someone said it was OK and then they change the rules, what would you do?”
Neither Toleman Construction nor Alto Buddha responded to requests for comment.
Josh Bitterman, manager of Evergreen Production’s grow operation in Monitor, said local growers and processors have formed a committee and are eager to work with neighbors and the county. In some cases, the county’s own moratorium is making it impossible for those operators who want to move elsewhere to seek new, less-obtrusive locations.
“I think there are places where we can put our farms, but our hands are tied (by the moratorium),” he said. “I don’t think the right decision is just to come in and shut everyone down. Let those farms move. Or let’s everyone work together. Everyone in the Chelan County growers’ alliance wants to work together to make this work for everyone. We want to be accepted, just like everyone else.”
Residents of Plain, an unincorporated community in rural Chelan County, worry that regulations are not in place to ensure these operations are correctly sited, have access to an adequate water supply and don’t disrupt area tourism or result in declining property values.
“Unfortunately, everyone got caught a little flat footed,” Jerry Jennings, an organizer of the local opposition, said. “The county just became aware of the negative impact, but by now people have put money into these legal businesses (legal cannabis).”
She says people have to get beyond the “not in my backyard” mentality, but said adequate zoning should be in place. She hopes county officials will reach out to the community on the best way to rezone.
“We want zoning and regulations that everyone can live with,” she said. “And not everyone is going to be happy. A lot of us have our life savings in here, and now this little town is being turned upside down. A lot of people really don’t like this.”
Christine Pratt: 665-1173