The Columbian / Associated Press

Fences for marijuana fields trouble neighbors

Chris Locke, a Murphy, Ore., landscape nursery owner, has complaints about the fence hiding a marijuana grow next to her business. Locke believes she lost business last year when would-be customers thought it was her grow. State law requires that grows be hidden from public view. (Photos by Tim Bullard/The Daily Courier)

MURPHY, Ore. — They say good fences make good neighbors. Then there are the fences that enclose the growing number of Josephine County’s marijuana grow sites.

There are a lot of them. And they are often ugly, especially when topped by a couple of feet of plastic.

Among those who are unhappy with the proliferation of Visqueen view-blockers is Chris Locke, a Murphy landscape nursery owner who endures the sight of a neighbor’s fenced marijuana grow.

Locke, co-owner of Murphy Country Nursery, says the fences are ruining Josephine County’s rural landscape. They’re tall and typically made of wood, or wood topped with plastic. Many are easy to spot.

“There are so many people who are unbelievably unhappy over the fences,” said Locke, who has erected a sign that says, “That’s not ours,” with an arrow pointing at the marijuana grow next to her business, located just south of the Applegate River and within plain view of traffic on Williams Highway.

“I think the laws should be changed,” Locke said. “Whoever made the laws that (a grow) had to be covered up, it’s ridiculous.”

Last year, the fence next door to Locke’s business was an ugly black plastic barrier. This year, it’s been upgraded to an ugly black plastic barrier adorned with brightly painted artsy fish, turtles and dragonflies. It looks 12 feet tall or higher.

A local artist did the work, according to a man tending the property. He asked not to be named.

“We have the nicest fence in the valley,” he said at the site. “We did this to make everybody happy.”

Locke says the fence, backed by chain link, is better than it was, but believes she lost business last year when would-be customers saw the fence and thought it was her marijuana grow.

Her sign disclaiming ownership of the grow went up about a month ago. Since then, people stop about once a day to say they’ve stayed away because they thought the grow was hers, she said.

“I realized last year, when they became real obvious, boy, it’s really slowed down here,” she said. “I passed it off.”

The number of fences in the county has increased as the use of medical marijuana and the number of medical marijuana grow sites increased since 1998, the year Oregon voters approved the use of pot as a medicine.

In January, Josephine County had more than 2,700 medical marijuana grow sites, up nearly 300 from the previous year. The county also had nearly 6,500 medical marijuana patients, up about 1,300 from a year earlier.

This year, following voter approval of recreational marijuana, the state has approved 11 grow sites in Josephine County to provide marijuana to retail outlets. Rules for the recreational program mandate that grows be shielded from public view, with one option to accomplish that being the construction of an 8-foot fence.

However, a fence isn’t required, said Mark Pettinger, a spokesman for the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, regulators of the new recreational market.

“They just need to make sure it’s obscured from the eyes of the public,” he says. “As long as they can prevent public access and obscure it from public view, they don’t necessarily need an 8-foot fence.”

Exactly why marijuana in the field should be shielded from public view isn’t something Pettinger or his counterpart with the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program, Jonathan Modie, is able to answer definitively. Pettinger said it goes back to the intent of lawmakers and program founders.

Rep. Carl Wilson, R-Grants Pass, could only guess how the idea for shielding pot from public view came to be. He was a member of a joint legislative committee overseeing implementation of recreational marijuana.

“Everybody knows what’s behind the screen,” he said. “That’s crazy.”

Josephine County Board of Commissioners Chairwoman Cherryl Walker, herself a medical marijuana grower, also didn’t know the origin of the rule to shield pot from view.

“I don’t understand why it has to be,” she said. “You know what’s behind it (a fence). You’re not concealing it. The complaint we’ve had is, they’re detrimental to property values.”

Walker, who said she fields complaints daily about grow sites — on a range of issues, not just fences — says the plastic fences get holes in them, rip and blow with the wind.

“It does look pretty shabby,” she said. “I find it to be a very unsightly aspect of the industry.”

Some growers, in an apparent effort to avoid county permit fees, build solid wood fences up to 7 feet tall, the limit at which a fence may be built without a permit in the county, and then add an additional foot or two of plastic to shield grows, Walker surmised.

The county is considering allowing 8-foot-high fences without the need for a permit. At a recent town hall meeting in Williams, pot industry proponents suggested the use of wire fences, and one person said that tall solid fences inhibit the migration of wildlife.