The Columbian / Associated Press

Kalama pot farm may face legal roadblock

KALAMA — Two months after clearing a major zoning hurdle, what could be Kalama’s first marijuana growing operation may be hitting a legal stone wall.

Two individuals and two couples who live near a proposed 10-acre pot farm and processing center have sued the city and the proponent, claiming that the rezoning move necessary to grow marijuana was illegal and that they weren’t properly notified about it.

The firm, All Natural Products, LLC, was founded by Frank Giese, a contractor from Sultan. Giese and nine investors want to build the farm on undeveloped land owned by Rochester businessman Robert Laymon.

All Natural Products has applied for state licenses to grow and process pot in Kalama. In addition, the project will need a city business license and building permit, and likely will have to submit to a city environmental review.

Giese said he’ll move forward despite opposition from the six residents, who worry that the farm will increase traffic, stink up the area, increase crime and drive down property values in the rural residential neighborhood. The neighbors also argue that allowing an industrial project next to a residential area violates the spirit, and perhaps the letter, of the city’s comprehensive land use plan.

“We had hopes that everyone would embrace us,” Giese said Tuesday. Noting, though, that the vote on Initiative 502 to legalize recreational marijuana was close, “We can’t expect everyone to be happy,” he added.

On a 3-2 vote Nov. 18, the Kalama City Council approved Giese’s request to rezone the 10-acre parcel — located a mile north of the Todd Road freeway exit — from commercial to industrial. Marijuana cannot be grown in a commercial zone.

The six plaintiffs claim they were not notified of this city’s planning commission meetings about the rezone request, as required by law with any property owner within 300 feet of a potential rezone. None of the six are on the city’s mailing list of notices about planning commission meetings.

Vancouver-based lawyer Mark Erikson, who is representing the plaintiffs, called the lawsuit an attempt “to stop an industrial use next to a residential area.” He notes that industrial zones typically pollute, draw more traffic and lower property values. “What’s more important is (the city) violated the comprehensive plan and violated my clients’ right to comment.”

Kalama City Administrator Adam Smee declined to comment on the lawsuit, but he said that dealing with proposed pot operations is a learning experience.

“Our goal is to be a professional organization that follows the code of the state … and respects both property rights of the owners and the neighbors. In a situation like this, with I-502, you have a new land use,” he said. “There’s not a lot of precedent” on how to balance competing property rights.

City Clerk/Treasurer Coni McMaster said the list of property owners who were mailed meeting notices was based on land records at the county assessor’s office. Under city law, if those records weren’t accurate at the time the city mailed the notices (typically done 10 days before a hearing), failure to notify those landowners doesn’t invalidate the rezone discussion. (All the plaintiffs but one — John Schmit — have owned their land near the proposed pot farm for at least a year.)

Giese said he plans to grow several marijuana strains meant for medicinal purposes. To start, he plans to grow pot only in the summer, when greenhouses are not necessary. He said he will use a carbon filtration system and chemical odor absorbent, but there’s debate about how well those control odors.

Giese estimated he’ll spend at least $200,000 to get the operation started. It will employ 12 to 14 people, he said.

“I believe there’s a lot of misinformation about the industry and what we do. We actually reduce crime by taking a portion of the cannabis off the streets and putting it in the legal market,” he said.

Vicky Close, who lives near the dirt road leading to Laymon’s property, is on the list of notices the city sent out about planning commission meetings. Close, though, said she never received the notices, but learned about the last meeting from a neighbor. Though she’s opposed to recreational marijuana, she’s becoming more accepting of medical marijuana. She said she isn’t bothered by Giese’s plan and is not a party to the rezone lawsuit.

“If you’re my neighbor, as long as it doesn’t affect me, I’m fine,” she said.

Smee said there will be more opportunity for public comment when the city does an environmental review once Giese submits a development application.

Ultimately, if a business meets state requirements, it will get a state license, said Brian Smith, a spokesman for the state Liquor and Cannabis Board. But the board encourages marijuana business owners to smooth out disagreements with neighbors, he said.

Giese said he’d like to have such a discussion.

“That’s all I would ask, that they don’t impose (their opinions) on other people,” he said. “We’re in a legal, legitimate business.”