SAGUACHE — During a work session Tuesday, Oct. 24 Saguache County Commissioners discussed the possibility of a marijuana moratorium and what would be necessary to declare such a moratorium if commissioners decide it is an option.
Commissioner Chair Tim Lovato announced at the opening of the meeting that no public comment would be allowed. About 10 members of the public were present. Colorado law is not specific about public comment during works sessions or even if work sessions should be considered actual meetings. It appears commissioners have the option to close comment at such meetings, but as several attendees observed, it does not bode well for transparency.
County residents have expressed concerns for several months over the number of marijuana grows permitted by the county, mainly because those who live in the immediate area bordering the grows say they have not been notified prior to approval of permits to establish retail or medical cultivation. Marijuana is not considered an agricultural crop and county land use laws require notification to property owners before a change in land use adjoining other property occurs.
The county requires conditional use permits for retail marijuana cultivation and according to the county’s land use code, this would include notification of adjacent property owners prior to county approval of the permit. Marijuana regulations state the county must take into consideration the impact of the proposed conditional use permit submitted by growers “on surrounding land users and uses. Reasonable suggestions and objections from persons in the neighborhood are a measure of compatibility and will be considered” in granting the application. (Sec. IV.8.4.4).
Currently 24 permits have been issued to retail growers but only five are currently producing, Land Use Administrator Wendi Maez said.
Saguache County Attorney Ben Gibbons said he would draft any proposed moratorium for commissioners, and Lovato said such a draft should include possible guidelines and provisions for a full-time code enforcement officer. The draft could be made available to the public for comment prior to its approval, Gibbons said, if that is what commissioners decide to do. He said an emergency moratorium is a possibility, but it was not clear whether such a moratorium also could be made available for public comment or not.
Lovato told Gibbons the county would like to place a cap on the number of operations it will allow and Gibbons said county residents and those living in town would be happy with such a cap. He commented that the increase in grows in the county has become overwhelming, especially for law enforcement.
Commissioner Ken Anderson said he wants to focus on stopping illegal grows and would like to see a cap on legal grows. He added that he is still waiting to see all the tax money the existing grows were expected to bring in. Commissioner Jason Anderson said before any decision about a cap is made, he would need to see numbers and ask land use if the current grows are more than they can handle. Maez told Anderson the current number of grows is not a problem.
Anderson noted that the sheriff’s office reports it does not have to go out to monitor legal grows. Since this is the first year of monitoring the grows, Anderson said he feels “hard facts” are needed before making a hasty decision to cap the number of growers. “I’m not sure we want a moratorium,” he concluded.
Lovato said growers are already saying competition is driving prices down and they can’t meet their costs. Jason Anderson said he has not heard that from those with “boots on the ground.”
Ken Anderson pointed out that some growers may not be doing a good job of producing the product and it is simply a weeding out process. He noted that water problems are an issue, and said where water is concerned, “farmers don’t get treated as nice as marijuana people do.”
Jason Anderson commented that there is a broad range of opinions on the issue, with some saying the county is doing too much and others maintaining they are not doing enough. Lovato countered his remark with the comment that he is hearing folks say, “enough is enough” and they don’t want Saguache County to be known as the “cannabis county.”
Jason Anderson told Lovato that Saguache County “is not the wild, wild West anymore” and education on the code enforcement in the county will take time.
Lovato said he is not sure some growers are even using a viable water source, but Jason Anderson replied the Code Enforcement Officer/Saguache Deputy Wayne Clark has done a great job, and going into the second year, the county will need a full-time enforcement officer. Sheriff Dan Warwick told commissioners he does not have the manpower to provide a full-time code enforcement officer from his office.
Maez observed Clark was able to work his code enforcement job and do deputy work all summer long. Warwick later commented that Clark’s demanding duties prevent him from being home with his family.
Regarding whether those plants seized from illegal grows can be destroyed on site, Gibbons said he and the sheriff are talking about the evidence retention rule and whether this affects destruction of the plants or not.
Gibbons said it is important that land use doesn’t put any regulation into effect that would frustrate law enforcement prosecution of illegal growers.
Regarding locked gates at suspected illegal grows, Gibbons said the county can obtain an administrative warrant to enter the property. If it is an illegal dumping hazard, an emergency warrant could be obtained; but issuance of any warrant would depend on judge availability.
Jason Anderson suggested county residents could always bring forth a ballot that would indicate residents no longer support Amendment 64, but until then commissioners have to make the decisions.
Lovato closed the meeting by commenting that maybe a survey should be issued before considering the moratorium.