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Some new regs apply to existing producers as well

New cannabis farms in Okanogan County will have to register annually and have a binding site plan that shows all fenced grows under a revised ordinance and zoning rules unanimously adopted by the county commissioners on Aug. 29.

Some new rules will apply to all producers, including the annual registration and $500 fee, but existing grows will be grandfathered in under old rules unless they change or expand their farm.

Cannabis grows, processing and retail operations now all require a conditional-use permit from the county, which entails a public hearing before the county’s hearing examiner. Before the change, cannabis operations were permitted outright in some zones in the county, although they’ve always been conditional in the Methow Review District. In some zones, generally those with smaller lots, they are not permitted at all.

The new rules came out of an effort to get a handle on what the commissioners and planning director said was a lack of coordination with the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (WSLCB). The board had been issuing licenses to growers without verifying that there was a valid address or that local zoning permitted cannabis farms there.

Some growers were obtaining licenses for “suites” and subletting to other growers, which resulted in multiple grows on a single parcel, sometimes exceeding the allowed plant canopy, Okanogan County Planning Director Pete Palmer said.

The Planning Department found the WSLCB had issued about 125 licenses for grows in Okanogan County, but the Planning Department had issued only 85 permits, according to the ordinance.

Meetings with staff

During a year-long moratorium on new or expanded farms in the county, the county’s growers were required to meet with Palmer and other planning staff to be sure they had a site plan and were in compliance with all regulations. Each producer must have an approved plan that shows the entire operation — the total acreage and all the components, including outbuildings, hoop houses, greenhouses, worker housing, and water source, Palmer said.

The meetings initially got off to a slow start, owing to the busy harvest season and some leeriness on the part of growers, but ultimately all but three of the current producers met with the county, Palmer said. While some needed to obtain permits or inspections, the meetings weren’t intended to be punitive. Planning staff also met with representatives from the state board.

The new rules require a 100-foot setback from all property lines. Settling on the setbacks took a compromise between the county’s planning commission and staff but, compared with the existing 25-foot setback, it provides more privacy for neighbors, who can “at least look out the window,” Palmer told the commissioners.

Farmers can use the setback zone for parking or security cameras, and many have used it to create a fire break, Palmer said.

All farms must have a lawful source of water and operate within applicable water limits. They must also meet certain regulations for noise, fencing and lighting.

The planning commission also unanimously approved the changes. There were no public comments on the final draft.

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