Proposed pot farm near Tenino draws neighbors’ ire

Skookumchuck Valley residents fear pollution, smell, loss of property value

Staff writerApril 16, 2014 

Green is everywhere in the Skookumchuck Valley, from the lush pastures grazed by cattle and horses to the forested hills that surround the rural community of mostly hobby farms just outside of Tenino.

But a group of residents have joined together to battle a different type of green from sprouting up in their neighborhood: a proposed commercial marijuana farm.

“I don’t care if someone grows a few plants; I don’t even care if they smoke it,” said Phil Forbing, who lives next door to the would-be pot farm in the 6000 block of 199th Avenue Southeast. “But I don’t want a commercial business next to me in a residential area.”

So far, about 20 people have joined the effort to block the farm that’s been proposed by Olympia-based Silica Phoenix LLC.

It’s one of the first not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) cases in the state since Initiative 502, approved by voters in November 2012, ushered the way for state-licensed production, processing and retail sales of recreational marijuana.

Some governments, including Pierce County and several of its cities, have banned new recreational marijuana enterprises within their jurisdictions. The Washington State Liquor Control Board has scheduled a lottery next week to select marijuana retail licenses around the state. Meantime, officials have approved about 40 licenses for growers and processors, according to Brian Smith, spokesman for the Liquor Control Board.

“What we’re finding is that a lot of people are either slow to pay their fee, or they’re not ready yet,” he said.

According to the control board’s online database, which is updated weekly, none of the applicants in Thurston County has received a state license. A company on Skokomish Valley Road in Mason County has received a production license, and an enterprise on Valentine Avenue in Pacific in Pierce County has received licenses to grow and process marijuana.

Thurston County commissioners eased into the law by passing a one-year interim ordinance that included zoning regulations on where state-licensed pot could be grown, processed and sold. County manager Cliff Moore said it hasn’t been an easy task to implement the new law.

Officials said they’ve only approved a handful of permits for growing and processing so far.

“This is a new world order,” Moore told commissioners during a recent meeting.

Several Skookumchuck Valley residents voiced their concerns at a recent Thurston County Commission meeting, urging officials to deny a special-use permit that’s been submitted for the nearly 10-acre property. They’ve also contacted officials at the Liquor Control Board.

Resident Shelly Forest said they have numerous concerns, including the commercial look of the farm, the environmental impact of possible chemicals and groundwater pollution, potential smell of pot plants and personal safety of nearby residents. She also doesn’t like the idea of security cameras on the property, or increased traffic that a business will bring onto their street.

“It’s absurd that we should have to put up with that,” Forest said. “It should be in a light industrial area.”

Forbing said he’s worried home values will plummet in the neighborhood once the operation is up and running.

“Who’s going to want to buy my property?” said Forbing, who purchased his home on a 5-acre lot in 2006. “Nobody with kids is ever going to want to buy it.”

Retired school bus driver Lynda Johnson-Townsend has lived in the area her entire life — in fact, her great-grandparents homesteaded nearby in 1873.

She said she’s outraged by the proposed pot farm on her street and doesn’t think county officials are taking her concerns seriously.

“I was told that it was no different than growing hay,” Johnson-Townsend said.

Silica Phoenix has applied for a state license to grow marijuana at the farm and process it at a different site, said Olympia attorney Jonathan Swartz, who is one of its four owners.

He said he expected the neighbors to have some curiosity about the farm, where 8-foot wooden privacy fences and the skeleton of a hoop greenhouse has been constructed.

“I was a little surprised about the way they went about expressing their concerns,” Swartz said. “We’ve never talked to the people who are complaining.”

He said he’d like to get together with the neighbors to talk about their concerns, and try to resolve issues. Now that pot has been legalized, there’s going to be a natural transition for people’s attitudes, he said.

“We’re in an ideological transition,” Swartz said.

The company’s business model is carbon-friendly and green, he said. They plan to hire local workers, support community fundraisers and be a good neighbor, Swartz said.

“We’re growing plants,” he added. “It just so happens, they’re called marijuana.”

Swartz compares the effort to the craft brew industry, which he says emphasizes quality and a connection to community.

“Our plan is to do chocolate products and other types of marijuana products,” Swartz said. “We are not purely capitalists. Yes, there is some financial incentive, but it’s about quality of life and sustainability of a lifestyle where we want to do something good.”

Lisa Pemberton: 360-754-5433
lpemberton@theolympian.com
@Lisa_Pemberton

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