On Monday night, with little warning and zero public input, the Bellingham City Council voted 7-0 to ban all growing, processing and retailing of recreation marijuana within the city limits of Bellingham. This emergency moratorium was proposed by the assistant city attorney, Alan Marriner in response to two entrepreneurs applying for business licenses to become fully legal marijuana businesses. The city, which has been waiting for the State to finish their rulemaking on the issue, decided to push for an emergency moratorium on all marijuana business licenses for the next year.
When asked why this measure needed to be passed in the dead of night with zero public input, the legal department responded that they did not want to let people know that they could apply for licenses, it was better to just ban them before anyone figured it out so that nobody gets in “under the wire.” Marriner stated that these moratoriums just “preserve the status quo until the state finishes their rulemaking.” The status quo was done away with in November 2012 and no amount of foot dragging is going to stop this progress. Several issues here that I want to address.
First, the city was waiting for guidance from the state on the zoning requirements, yet the law that we passed (by 66% in the City of Bellingham) is pretty explicit about much of the requirements (1,000 feet from any parks, schools, hospitals, transit centers, daycares etc, no signs beyond a certain size and dimension, the list goes on). Obviously there is more to zoning laws than was listed in the law, but the city could not start making its own preparations? Especially considering that the state is releasing its final draft rules next week – which should provide an excellent template for local guidelines. To think that our legal department got caught unaware by this issue is disappointing. Were they unaware that the citizens of Bellingham might capitalize on this business opportunity?
Second, correct me if I’m wrong but doesn’t the city have the ability to approve, deny or delay business licenses at the permit desk? Isn’t that the number one complaint about the permit desk, that it is slow and frequently denies things over frivolous reasons? It seems to me that a much better response would have been for the permitting desk to just hold all licenses until the legal department completes its homework – saying that the rulemaking is still in progress and we aren’t processing any applications yet but when we do, we will do so in the order they are received. This would allow entrepreneurs to continue to move forward in preparing their businesses. I understand the concern about vesting applications but the moratorium seems a drastic overreaction to this potential problem.
Third, this is a huge money making opportunity, for the free market and for the city through tax revenue. Does the city really want to delay our businesses till July next year while those in Ferndale and Blaine can open their doors as soon as the state flips the switch in January 2014? It appears to be a pretty clear example of the city shooting its business community in the foot right before they run a marathon. At best this seem reactionary, at worst it looks like thwarting the will of the voters of Bellingham (and the state at large). I reached out to some of our city council and gathered some more responses to this.
Michael Lilliquist said that he “appreciated these being brought forward” but stated that it is the city council’s intention to lift the moratorium as soon as the legal department has “finished doing their homework.” He reiterated that it is not their intention to stop anyone from opening a business, just to make sure that they are not “grandfathered in” with something that does not comply with future zoning requirements.
Cathy Lehman noted that they did take a rare break to reread and consider the moratorium since they were
not provided copies of it in advance CLARIFICATION: They received copies earlier that day. Lehman stated that, “Whatever the case, (the ban) is temporary, hopefully even more temporary than we set forth.” She said her concerns were, ” there are a number of potentially (and maybe unforeseen) bad consequences to going ahead in this vacuum.”
Gene Knutson pointed out that they will be holding a public hearing on August 12th to discuss the moratorium. However, Marriner has already stated that “the council would hear from the public but we don’t plan on deviating from the moratorium until we have finished the planning process.” Knutson raised the specter of rule making around Lake Whatcom, “Remember when the county did not do (pass a moratorium on building) on Lake Whatcom property and 1,100 applications were filed.”
I understand their concerns but the real test will be how quickly this moratorium is repealed. Setting up a business takes quite a bit of time and if our entrepreneurs are going to be competitive with our neighboring communities, they need to be able to open their doors January 2014. I would hate for this response by the city to handicap our efforts. Especially considering that retail businesses need something to sell in January and that agricultural product is not going to just drop out of the sky. It needs to be grown first and that takes time.
UPDATE: John Servais, publisher of NWCitizen, weighed in on the irony of this situation over at his site. Check it out, it is worth the read.