Oct 242012

By Linda Kor
Medical marijuana in Navajo County was dealt a blow last Thursday as members of the county’s Planning and Zoning Commission denied two requests put before them; one for a special use permit for a medical marijuana dispensary in the Overgaard area and another for a zone change for a future medical marijuana cultivation site east of Snowflake.
In attendance at the meeting were approximately 40 residents, mostly from the Heber/Overgaard area, all in opposition to the items on the agenda.
The first item was presented as a special use permit request by Greg Kennison to open a dispensary in a small business complex located at 2279 Highway 260 in Overgaard. Representing Kennison in the matter was Bob Fern, who indicated he was to be the operator of the facility.
According to Planning and Zoning Manager Trent Larson, the request by Kennison met the requirements set forth by the Arizona Department of Health Services as well as the ordinance approved by the Board of Supervisors in February 2011 pertaining to dispensary operations. He noted that he had received 67 letters in opposition to the proposed facility, with three letters in favor.
Although Larson began the meeting by stating that this was a meeting to determine land use and not a debate on the issue of medical marijuana, the meeting rarely deviated from that topic.
Resident Bob Klick spoke first regarding his concerns that medical marijuana patients driving to and from the dispensary could be incapacitated by product use and cause accidents at the nearby airpark. “I have a niece who is a heavy marijuana user. Users could cause an accident, impaired people have caused problems in the past,” he stated.
Business owner Scott McLaws, who operates an auto body repair shop adjacent to the proposed site, was also concerned with safety. “If the state has reasons why this shouldn’t be near schools and churches, I don’t want it next to my business. My kids get dropped off there often and I have scouting activities there in the back yard. I have the same concerns as the state,” he said, citing the additional concern of losing business if people should feel uncomfortable coming to an area where a dispensary is located.
Two representatives from the Heber/Overgaard Chamber of Commerce voiced their opposition, stating that a business of that nature was not good for the community. Other residents expressed concerns regarding the potential increase in crime due to a medical marijuana facility. “I have compassion for people who need relief, so why not let this be available at a pharmacy like any other prescription drug. There are already a lot of citations along Highway 260 that involve drug paraphernalia,” stated resident Carolyn Middleton.
In response, Fern stated that he understood the community’s concern and appreciated their input. “Medical marijuana patients are not gang members or minorities. There are 91 medical marijuana patients in the area. Mostly they are elderly with serious issues. Much of what we would provide would have to be delivered because they are unable to move. These are your family, neighbors and relatives. People you go to church with, not people to fear,” stated Fern, adding that the state has very strict regulations regarding dispensaries, claiming security measures equal those of most banks.
Fern also explained that the dispensary would be a very low-key operation with no loitering allowed, a small sign in the window and another on the marquee for the complex with the name Compassion Care. “Otherwise there would be no evidence of anything being there. We’d lock the doors at 7 p.m.,” he said.
In response to the information presented, Commissioner Jason Hatch stated that while he understood the boundaries of the law he was not in support of legalized marijuana. “I’m frustrated and stunned that this passed. I don’t like it, but I understand your rights. I’m concerned that personal opinion won’t outdo law. What I want is for you to provide services as you have and wish you’d reconsider,” stated Hatch, referring to the five medical marijuana patients for whom Fern currently grows marijuana.
When asked by the commissioners what alternatives were available for patients should a dispensary not be approved, Assistant County Manager Homero Vela addressed the question. “The alternative is that a patient can grow the marijuana in his home. The state allows for five plants to be grown without being regulated by the county. We can have a dispensary in a controlled environment or a free-for-all, so to speak, with regulating done by the state,” he said. Vela added that individuals who received certificates for dispensaries had only one year before the certificate expires.
Commissioner Wendell DeCross addressed Fern stating, “We are charged with addressing the health and safety of the community. By your own admission safety is the main concern, to me that’s an admission that safety is a problem. If this was further from the population, then fine.” DeCross then moved to decline the request due to safety concerns. The motion was accepted by Chairman Joel Lawson and approved by all commissioners present, including Evelyn Meadows, Fred Shupla, Randy Murph, Ruth Ann Smith, Hatch and DeCross. Commissioners absent from the proceedings included Bob Hall, Robert K. Black Jr., Bill Rawlings, Carol Davis, Chuck Teetsel and Rick Slone.
In a separate matter, H. Dixon Oates addressed the commissioners requesting a zone change from Rural-20 to Commercial-Residential for his property located at 9222 Concho Highway east of Snowflake. In the information presented by Larson, he stated that the request fell in line with the county’s plan for land use in the area and that other sections of land had been re-zoned for commercial use in that area previously. He also noted that if the request was approved, he would then come before the commission on a separate occasion to request a special use permit for the construction of a medical marijuana cultivation site.
“I went through the process with the ADHS and can sit for one and a half hours in discussion on why I feel medical marijuana is for all human benefit, but I want to limit this to a zone change. This will be a high tech greenhouse, much like the EuroFresh facility but with 10-foot walls surrounding it and only dispensary agent access,” stated Oates.
Oates, who was chosen as the dispensary agent by the ADHS for the Winslow CHAA (Community Health Analysis Area), planned to cultivate the marijuana at the proposed site and transport it to the dispensary he hopes to open in Winslow, which has yet to go before the Winslow Planning and Zoning Commission.
Despite the item being listed on the agenda as a request for rezoning, the commission chairman once again allowed the discussion to focus on the concerns of medical marijuana in the community. Lawson allowed residents within the 300-foot radius to voice their concerns, then allowed several of the residents from the Heber area who spoke earlier to once again address their concerns regarding safety.
Sharon Robinson, who has property adjacent to the proposed site, expressed concerns over potential gang activity should the location be made known and her fear of property value decreasing.
Joanne Weldon, another adjacent property owner, cited concerns for law enforcement response should an incident take place at the site. “It’s a 15-minute response time for law enforcement. People will know where it is. I don’t want it there,” she said.
Local real estate agent Karen Ingersoll, who assisted Oates in his property acquisition, spoke on behalf of his character. “He is a PhD student in construction management. You don’t get something like that if you’re a bum. He’s doing this to help people. While there have been comments regarding the need for security, I feel better about the security. It’s coming here. It’s government approved, but it’s only allowed in certain areas,” she noted.
The topic then shifted to a discussion of the facility itself and what impact it would have on the area.
Commission Randy Murph asked of Oates, “It seems like the biggest concern is the intrusion. What will the employees be earning?”
Oates response was that there would be full-time employees, a harvest contractor and part-time employees, but that wages had not been detailed as of yet. “It would be above minimum wage and this is a non-profit organization, so any profits would have to go to charity or into the community,” explained Oates, adding that this was an opportunity for employment in an area that has lost jobs due to the closure of the Catalyst Paper Mill.
He also informed the board that the facility would be built in stages, with the maximum size being a 15,000-square foot facility.
This appeared to surprise several commissioners, who seemed to expect a much larger facility.
“Did you say 50,000-square foot facility?” asked Lawson, who when corrected commented, “That’s not very big.”
“This is a very high-tech facility that provides a rapid growth rate for turnaround. There’s no chemical run-off and the by-product could produce a community garden,” stated Oates.
Once the discussion concluded, DeCross moved to deny the requested item, stating vehemently, “This is about the safety of the residents of Navajo County. How safe will (property owners) be? I make a motion to deny the request.”
This motion was also supported unanimously by all commissioners present.
In a discussion with Oates directly following the meeting, he expressed his surprise at the outcome. “I’m just stunned. I thought this would be a cakewalk because it was just supposed to be about re-zoning. My special use permit has just been decided. Had I been given the rezoning I would have gone through the process of public information meetings and addressing any concerns, but it’s already been decided,” he said.
Oates hopes to receive what he believes is his due process through the Board of Supervisors, who will take the Planning and Zoning Commission’s decision into consideration when the item is presented at a future meeting.