SAGUACHE — It was standing room only again in the commissioners’ room at the courthouse Tuesday as over 70 people, spilling out into the courthouse lobby, came to register complaints regarding underfunding and understaffing of the Saguache Sheriff’s Office and illegal pot grows.
Citizens persevered despite the uncomfortably warm commissioners’ room, where many were forced to sit on the floor or stand shoulder to shoulder. Overhead fans remained idle and windows remained closed, even though it was an unseasonably warm day. Those in the lobby could not hear the proceedings and were not able to comment.
A few local pot growers operating legally and marijuana proponents not at previous meetings were sprinkled throughout the crowd. Commissioner Jason Anderson suggested that those who had not spoken at previous meetings be allowed to speak versus others who had registered comments before. Prior to Tuesday’s meeting, several requests were made to relocate the meeting to larger quarters, one to Commissioner Tim Lovato, one to all the commissioners and another to county administration, all requests were ignored.
County Co-Administrator Wendi Maez said she had checked marijuana grow applications Bonanza resident Bill Case previously brought to her attention that were not correctly filed. She said there were errors on the application that had been corrected. Some speculated later the errors existed when filed and were corrected only after the fact.
Case then took his allotted time to address commissioners, noting first that while Commissioner J. Anderson has stated that marijuana legalization and the approval of Amendment 64 expressed the will of the people, 66 percent of Colorado counties have banned medical and recreational marijuana sales and production. He then added that in Saguache County, where both legal and illegal grows have proliferated, the attitude has been “to see how this experiment works out, and there have been numerous unwanted consequences.”
“Mr. [Commissioner Ken] Anderson said, ‘this is a moral issue and it is a moral issue — there are children involved,” Case pointed out. He recounted a discussion with Mountain Valley School Superintendent Travis Garoutte, telling commissioners how children from Lazy KV Estates come to school reeking of marijuana and must take showers before beginning the school day. Many of them need breakfast at the school because they have not eaten and some wash their clothes in bathroom sinks.
Saguache County Public Health Director David Daboll added later that half of these students are “stoned out of their minds” from working for their parents or other growers. While handling illegal grow plants the plant oils penetrate the skin and result in intoxication. “People need to pay attention,” Daboll concluded.
Case then detailed the previous locations of those who have opened legal operations here, remarking that nearly all of them came from out of state and several had ties to foreign countries. He also mentioned that water supplies in the Valley are being adversely affected and property values in grow areas are declining.
James Falsetta spoke next, reading a letter on behalf of himself and other county residents. He said many residents are concerned because marijuana growers in the area are employing people of questionable character who have no respect for the land. Some of these workers are living in storage containers and have no access to running water or bathroom facilities. He said those in the area would be grateful for the work but are not employed. He expressed concern that illegal growers, mainly, are obtaining water illegally from local creeks and lakes, endangering wildlife and using toxic fertilizing agents. He asked the county to more carefully monitor their movements and eradicate illegal grows.
Falsetta also cited the impact of the grows on those property owners living adjacent to them, observing the wear and tear on roads now as traveled as streets in the city. Children living nearby can no longer ride their bikes on County Road T; he said and there are four grows within a two-mile radius on County Road T.
He told commissioners that the county is not communicating well about how they are handling the problem and demanded an accounting from commissioners.
Following the afternoon session of the meeting where additional grows were approved, despite objections by the public, Moffat resident Bob Tafoya, who attended the morning session, came to the following conclusion: Commissioners will not listen to county residents and have no intention of limiting grows. They are in it for the money, he said, and many are questioning where, exactly, all that money goes and why it is not itemized in the county’s budget.
Public comment on legal and illegal grows
Numerous citizens then offered comments, some complaining about the lights, fumes and proximity of legal and illegal grows. Growers defended their operations, accusing ag producers of creating more road wear than growers and potato farmers of using more toxic chemicals than marijuana growers use.
Other growers said that to limit marijuana production in any way is unconstitutional and “prohibition” of pot will not happen. Those advocating for a moratorium on marijuana, however, ask only that such a pause in accepting applications be used to tighten the regulations and application process. Planning commission member Bill McClure says the county planning commission intends to revise their review process and tighten the regulations, but added he cannot control what commissioners approve or don’t approve.
Another citizen accused the planning commission of not dotting their “i’s and crossing their ‘t’s” in approving applications, telling the planning commission that their laxity in allowing applications through is where the problems begin. Many growers receive their planning commission approval and start building before even going through the application process and this is never addressed as it should be, he observed. He urged the county to throw illegal growers in jail.
Generally those commenting supported legal grows but urged the county to eliminate illegal grows and address issues with the application process
Sheriff’s office funding
Marsha Husted commended Sheriff Dan Warwick for submitting a new budget to commissioners last week, requesting an additional $67,000 in funding for the sheriff’s office. She presented budget data that indicates the county can well afford the increase. She ended her comments by asking commissioners when they would approve the new budget.
Another citizen described a recent video she viewed on the Internet that shows a rural California county that has declared a state of emergency regarding its illegal marijuana problem and is working to eradicate cannabis within its county. Like Saguache, health and safety issues are cited as well as increased crime and a large number of illegal grows. The video can be viewed at http://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-us-canada-42548116/recreational-marijuana-on-sale-in-california
Commissioners told those attending the meeting that Sheriff Warwick did not complete his preliminary budget paperwork on time according to the county’s new budget process. County Co-Administrator Lyn Zimmer-Lambert said she offered to help Warwick with his budget and received no response. She also commented that certain procedures would need to be followed in order to consider whether Warwick’s budget request would be honored. Commissioners would not say whether they favored granting the increase or not.
Case told commissioners that it was unfair for them to accuse Warwick of not completing paperwork when he is on patrol duty and does not even have time to complete sheriff office reports on crimes. A Saguache downtown business owner told commissioners it appears to him that there is a lot of tension between the BoCC and the sheriff’s office, suggesting that Warwick and commissioners hold a special meeting open to the public where they can air their differences.
In a later interview, Warwick said he did not need help with his budget and prefers to submit it himself per the guidelines the department has always followed. Because the county wished to balance the budget, he said, he believed that he needed to stay within certain budgetary parameters to maintain that balance, which is why he did not ask for additional funds.
As for writing the grant to recover money for illegal grows, Warwick said no one in his department is qualified to do this. The county had a line item in the budget for a grant writer last year, he noted, but not this year.