Auburn City Council lifts ban, adopts regulations on pot shops

Calling “complicated” the City of Auburn’s relationship to the legal sale and use of recreational marijuana inside its boundaries would be accurate.

Ever since 2012, when voters throughout the state passed I-502, making recreational cannabis legal to grow, sell, smoke, Auburn’s leaders have grappled with the local consequences.

Among them, Green Solutions Place, a controversial retail marijuana operation that opened on Auburn Way South in 2016 even while a City moratorium against additional pot stores was in place. A judge shut it down, and Green Solutions, one of two retailers who received their license as a result of Senate Bill 5052, a subsequent state action directed at closing down unregulated medical marijuana store fronts, counter sued.

Last August, in large part in response to that lawsuit, the city threw up another moratorium, halting certain types of marijuana-related activities until planners and legal minds could create permanent land use standards and procedures to address all forms of marijuana-related activities.

After three public meetings in the spring, the City’s planning commission held a public hearing on a draft ordinance, deliberated and in June voted to recommend that City council approve the new standards.

Well, it took a while, but on Monday the City Council voted those new regulations into law and lifted the moratorium.

Here is a sampling of what the new rules do:

• Permit up to four marijuana retailers in Auburn, two more than specified by the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board’s (WSLCB) initial lottery. At present, the two are Evergreen Market in north Auburn and The Stash Box in south Auburn.

• Increase the physical distance between marijuana-related activities and uses and other uses from the state standard of 1,000 square feet to a quarter-mile for some and a half-mile for other uses, depending on what the pot side of the equation is being separated from.

• Add to the state list of uses that require separation private schools, private playgrounds, private recreation facilities, private parks, public trails, religious institutions transit centers or park-and-rides operated by a sovereign nation. Public schools already require such separation.

• Declare marijuana-related activities that were legally established before the moratorium as legally-conforming uses.

• Limit marijuana-related activities to the C3 commercial and M1 and M2 industrial zoning districts.

• Establish “rigorous public review procedures” all applicants must meet before applying for a business license.

Green Solutions Place wasn’t the only potential retailer to receive a license as a result of Senate Bill 5202.

Last October, when KF Industries’ owner Kirk Edwards learned that the WSLCB planned to issue two more retail marijuana licenses in Auburn, in addition to the two allowed via the previous state lottery, he began in haste to remodel a long vacant store at 404 Auburn Way S. But despite having received his license from the WSLCB, he found his plans caught between the City moratorium and the board, which does not recognize moratoria.

Problem for Edwards – while the ordinance council adopted Monday does indeed open the way for a fourth marijuana retailer, the City maintains that KF Industries’ site on Auburn Way South does not meet state requirements for setbacks from residential uses.

Phillip Dawdy, a lobbyist representing KF Investments, who said he had worked with state lawmakers on buffering requirements, asked the City Council to delay the ordinance until he and others could examine it to determine if there existed “a bit of a disconnect” between what the planning commission recommended for approval in terms of setback distance and what was said in the ordinance Council was to vote on.

“We heard something different,” Dawdy said, recalling meetings at which he and Edwards and others were present. “What we heard was the planning commission did not vote to recommend increasing the school, parks, playgrounds, library buffers to a half-mile; what they did vote on increasing the distance on was dispersion between stores to a half-mile, and there’s quite a bit of difference between those two things.”

David Osgood, an attorney for KF Industries, began by noting that his client was one of two who got licenses to operate in Auburn in the wake of Senate Bill 5052.

“At the time I-502 passed, one retail storefront, (The Stashbox), got in before there were land-use ordinances or moratoria or any ban whatsoever. … The second, Evergreen Market, came in at the time of the moratorium, but the City lifted the moratorium for Evergreen Market, saying the moratorium does not apply to retail storefronts that were licensed by the state to be here. So Evergreen got in … Green Solutions said, ‘We’re going to open, sue us.’ The City sued them, got a court order saying, ‘You have not established use,’ and a judge who said, ‘This is an order shutting you down.’ Evergreen Solutions counter sued and settled with the City for $53,000 in attorney’s fees and a council resolution allowing them to remove themselves from their current location and settle somewhere else – despite the ban — and establishing the land use.”

So, Osgood continued, there are now three businesses in the city of Auburn that won’t subject to the ordinance adopted Monday.

“And we are very surprised to find we are the only one that will be subject to this ordinance,” Osgood said. …”That puts us at a disadvantage. This half-mile buffer makes it literally impossible to open in the city of Auburn. We want to work with the City. However, if the price of ever using our license in the city of Auburn is litigation, we are prepared to litigate. But, make no mistake: what you are contemplating tonight is meant to apply to one, and only one establishment – ours. That kind of law is constitutionally repugnant, it is illegal, and it’s going to be futile.”

Councilman John Holman quoted from an opinion issued by State Attorney General Bob Ferguson confirming the powers of local governments to regulate the implementation of I-502 within their jurisdictions.

“We’re doing what we were elected to do,” Holman declared.

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