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Jackson County proposes marijuana grow restrictions

Jackson County is proposing regulations on the growing and processing of marijuana that include property buffers, legal water use, odor control and limits on lighting.

Planning staff members developed the proposed rules after being flooded with complaints from rural residents upset about the skunk-like odor of maturing pot plants, domestic wells being tapped to water plants and growers firing off guns and using menacing guard dogs.

At the same time, marijuana growers, dispensary owners and medical marijuana users have asked for minimal regulation for the burgeoning pot industry in the Rogue Valley.

Jackson County Development Services Director Kelly Madding gave a briefing on the proposed rules before an overflow crowd Thursday. Jackson County planning commissioners then spent the day listening to input from opponents and supporters of regulation during a public hearing.

Because so many people signed up to speak, the hearing will continue at 9 a.m. Thursday, Dec. 10, at the Jackson County Auditorium, 10 S. Oakdale Ave., Medford. Planning commissioners will forward their recommendations to the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, which will decide the fate of the regulations at a future date.

Although Jackson County already is home to myriad agricultural operations, Madding said she has never before heard the kind of complaints she and other county officials have been receiving over marijuana grows and the behavior of some growers.

"Staff developed the regulations based on the feedback and complaints we've received over the past year-and-a-half," she said.

The rules would not apply to the four recreational marijuana plants or six medical marijuana plants state law allows people to grow for their own personal use. Larger grows would be affected.

To help buffer impacts, marijuana crops and buildings used for marijuana production would have to be set back 100 to 250 feet from a property line, depending on the land-use zone. Rural-residential and rural-use zones would have the widest buffers.

Indoor lights for growing and processing could not be visible outside a building from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.

Growers would have to have legal water rights to the water they use on marijuana crops. Alternately, they could use other legal sources, such as purchased water they truck in.

"One of the concerns we have heard is about illegal water use," Madding said.

Buildings that contain marijuana would have to have carbon filtration odor-control systems, or an alternate system that is at least as good as a carbon filter system.

People could not camp out in tents or recreational or camping vehicles next to grows or processing sites.

The regulations do not address the issue of fencing. Marijuana grows surrounded by tall plastic fencing have proliferated in Jackson County.

The proposed regulations were met with mixed reviews by the crowd at Thursday's public hearing.

Land-use consultant Clark Stevens, who represents property owners who want to grow marijuana, said the property line buffers should be reduced. If there is no nearby home on a neighboring property, marijuana should be allowed closer to the property line, he recommended.

Stevens said many properties in the county are long and narrow. Those property owners would be able to grow only a narrow strip of marijuana down the middle of their land under the proposed buffer rules.

Stevens advocated requirements for solid, permanent fencing in order to provide privacy and security.

Applegate Valley resident Priscilla Weaver, who is concerned about odor and water use, said the proposed regulations strike a reasonable balance between people's right to grow marijuana and the rights of neighbors.

But farm owner Christy Kunkel of Medford said the buffers would destroy her ability to grow marijuana on her two-acre property. She said marijuana is the only economically viable use of her land, and wide buffers would favor out-of-state interests that would launch large-scale commercial operations — to the detriment of small, locally owned farms.

Kunkel conceded marijuana plants are malodorous for about eight to 10 weeks as they mature, but she said a peach orchard near her farm produces foul odors for about 20 weeks when sulfur and fungicide are sprayed and when peaches rot on the ground. A fan to combat frost damage to the peaches is as loud as a helicopter.

Kunkel noted right-to-farm laws in Oregon protect agricultural operations from complaints about odor and noise.

Madding said dairy farms, onion and garlic fields and other smelly agriculture uses don't face regulations about odor in Jackson County. The county's legal department has advised the proposed marijuana regulations likely would be challenged in court.

The Oregon Legislature has granted local jurisdictions the authority to regulate marijuana, setting up potential conflicts with state right-to-farm protections.

Ashland resident and marijuana dispensary owner Peter Gross told planning commissioners they should reject the proposed regulations.

"You need to vote 'no' on all of these proposals," he said, adding that industry representatives would like to meet with planning staff to develop new regulations.

Gross said marijuana growers who have exhibited bad behavior are marginal people who have acted improperly because marijuana prohibition previously pushed the industry into the shadows. He said there are many responsible business owners and farmers involved in the industry, with more wanting to join.

Industry representatives said the proposed regulations would knock 80 percent of growers and would-be growers out of contention. They said the marijuana industry could generate tens of millions of dollars in economic activity in Jackson County alone — benefiting workers, other businesses and taxing jurisdictions.

Ashland resident Michael Monarch, who owns several marijuana businesses, said Southern Oregon is gaining a worldwide reputation as a producer of quality marijuana.

"This industry is about to explode," he said.

Written comments about the regulations can be sent to Madding via email at maddinka@jacksoncounty.org or through regular mail at Attention: Kelly Madding, Jackson County Offices, 10 S. Oakdale Ave., Room 100, Medford, OR 97501. The period for comments to the Planning Commission will remain open at least until Dec. 10.

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-776-4486 or valdous@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.