Most speakers voice opposition to producer/processor conditional use application in Cheney's business park
Tuesday's hearing on a conditional use permit application by Cheney Hydroponics for a marijuana producing and processing facility in the city's Industrial and Commerce Park brought out hard information about the project, impassioned public testimony on the negative effects to the community, and one or two surprises.
One of those was the applicant – Eastern Washington University professor Dr. Bill Youngs, who has taught history at the university since 1972. Youngs said he is likely one of the last persons to know anything about marijuana, and never considered anything about it in the past for one big reason.
"It was illegal," Youngs told hearing examiner Brian McGinn and a City Council chamber audience of about 24-30 individuals including four council members, several city department heads and residents.
Youngs said he was also part of the "apprehensive crowd" worried about the possibilities for growing and using recreational marijuana, made legal by passage in 2012 of Initiative 502. Several factors led him to believing entering into such an venture might be good for himself and his partners, four other members of his family, as well as the community.
One was a recent Gallup Poll indicating 57 percent of respondents nationwide felt it was time to legalize marijuana. Another was the initiative itself, which puts stringent regulations on the production and resale of the drug. Youngs said they looked around for suitable locations and were shown warehouses in Spokane and Medical Lake, but it was Cheney's Industrial and Commerce Park which proved attractive, namely because it was vacant and already designed with technology in mind, a feature of Cheney Hydroponics proposed growing process.
"The only thing built on that site is that little sign of ours, after five years," Youngs said of the 35-acre park.
Cheney Hydroponics' application calls for a 6,650 square foot facility of which 5,250 square feet would be used as the growing area. The remaining would be a processing area, office, lounge and meeting room and a walk-in safe to store product.
According to a staff report by planner Brett Lucas, a SEPA environmental review was already done on a similar sized building as part of the city's site certification process in 2012. Lucas and city department heads reviewed the project to make sure the application conformed to stated goals and policies in the comprehensive plan, followed the CUP process and was in compliance with other city standards before recommending the application be approved.
Several residents testified before the examiner regarding the project, most voicing opposition to the project.
"Substances such as marijuana ruin lives," retired Marine Corps veteran and substance abuse counselor Shawn Ryan said. "Why would we want a business like this in Cheney?"
Ryan questioned what the operation would bring to the city besides added costs for law enforcement as a result of increased crime as well as the kind of message it was sending to local children. He added approval could send the message Cheney supports marijuana.
Cheney School District Superintendent Dr. Debra Clemens spoke to the impacts she and educators have seen from substance abuse in Cheney schools. The district has a health and wellness program as well as a prevention program, and when the state OK'd medical marijuana dispensaries they saw students getting greater access to the drug.
"The number of referrals increased and the number of students that required individualized counseling increased," she said.
One person who said she was bringing a "different perspective" to the discussion was resident Melissa Lunsford, who did medical marijuana recommendations for clients at a dispensary. Lundsford said the Liquor Control Board has installed high standards for recreational marijuana regarding security, screening of production, processor and retail owners and other controls.
"I'd much rather have it come through this type of facility than some kind of street gangster in the middle of the night," she said.
In a move outside typical hearing protocol, Cheney city attorney Stanley Schwartz addressed hearing examiner McGinn and the audience regarding three issues with the application process: responsibility of city staff, federal law and the legal effect of 502 on Cheney.
Regarding the first, Schwartz said it's up to staff to evaluate the application based on the data provided and how that conforms to city regulations and standards set forth in the code, not make a personal judgment on the project's merits. As for federal law there was "no question" marijuana is still considered illegal, but recent developments such as 17 states having approved medical marijuana have caused the U.S. Justice Department to take a step back on enforcing the federal laws in these states as well as the two who have approved marijuana for recreational use – Washington and Colorado.
In that regards, the U.S. Attorney General's office is watching closely to make sure states have robust regulations and are enforcing those regulations effectively and strongly.
"If there's a breach in the dam, so to speak, the federal government is going to come in and patch it," Schwartz said.
As for Cheney, Schwartz said the state's legislation "was strong" in providing protections, and the city added to this by making sure applicants followed a conditional use process established by ordinance Nov. 26.
The hearing examiner has 14 calendar days within which to issue a recommendation. There is a 14-calendar day appeals window following, with final processing of the application to conclude by April 10. Schwartz said the decision to approve or deny is solely up to the hearing examiner.
Just as important for Youngs, Cheney Hydroponics must successfully complete its application with the state to become one of a select few producers and processors of marijuana.
John McCallum can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.