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Buffer zones made moot by state

The Oregon Legislature has passed a bill that essentially makes marijuana growing on rural residential land in Jackson County illegal.

The Legislature clarified state law and said medical marijuana is a farm use, a legal term generally referring to an intensive agricultural operation. Recreational marijuana already was labeled as a farm use.

Jackson County law does not allow farm use on rural residential land, which is meant for quiet country living.

The Jackson County Board of Commissioners had considered property line buffers for medical marijuana grows on rural residential land, but discarded those buffers Thursday after learning of the legislative action.

The issue of growing on rural residential land had been hotly debated locally, with neighbors complaining about problems with grows and medical marijuana growers saying they provide much-needed medicine.

Commissioners will make a final decision on adopting a host of new county regulations on the growing, processing and selling of marijuana on March 16. The new laws would be adopted under emergency provisions and would go into effect on that date. Marijuana growing will be allowed in exclusive farm use and forest zones, and in industrial zones if processing also takes place at the site.

Jackson County Development Services Manager Kelly Madding said existing medical marijuana growers on rural residential land could apply for pre-existing, non-conforming use status, which could allow them to continue operating.

Anyone who has a use that becomes illegal under a new law can go through that process, she said.

The Oregon Legislature also passed a loophole that could allow small, pre-existing medical marijuana grows to continue on rural residential land in counties where that would become illegal.

Those medical marijuana growers will not have to seek a land-use compatibility statement from a county government in order to get an Oregon Liquor Control Commission license to sell into the recreational marijuana system, said Association of Oregon Counties Legal Counsel Rob Bovett.

If they had to apply, those growers would not be able to get such a statement because their operations would not comply with their counties' laws.

Bovett said the waiver of the land-use compatibility statement requirement does not mean the medical marijuana growers will be operating legally under their counties' laws.

"There is not a path forward to render them compliant," he said.

While it might seem counter-intuitive that state legislators gave growers a way to operate under the radar, Bovett noted that medical and recreational marijuana growers in Oregon are all operating illegally under federal law.

"It's a federal felony," he said.

Oregonians voted in 2014 to legalize recreational marijuana, but the drug is still illegal nationally. Medical marijuana has long been legal in the state.

Jackson County commissioners have been working for weeks to hammer out local regulations. Their work has been slowed by shifting developments and the passage of amended and merged marijuana bills at the state Capitol.

Commissioner Doug Breidenthal urged people who plan to launch marijuana businesses to do so thoughtfully.

"If you are going to get into the industry, please respect your neighbors," he said.

Breidenthal said commissioners want the marijuana industry to move forward in a regulated, legitimate manner like other industries.

"The last thing we want is out-of-control rogue businesses," he said, noting that a small number of disrespectful people can put a stigma on the entire industry.

Breidenthal urged Jackson County's planning staff to continue working to help people understand regulations and comply with laws, and to use restraint when it comes to citing and fining violators.

Jackson County's land-use system is complaint-driven, meaning county staff will not seek out violators, but will respond to complaints about potentially illegal activity.

Commissioner Colleen Roberts thanked county staff members for their work in gathering up data as well as the hundreds of citizens who provided input during weeks of hearings.

Commissioner Rick Dyer said crafting the county regulations is not an exact science, but commissioners tried to balance competing interests.

"I know not everybody is 100 percent happy," he said.

County staff members plan to compile all the new regulations that have been tentatively approved by commissioners and create a draft ordinance that can be viewed by the public at least 24 hours in advance of the March 16 meeting to adopt an emergency ordinance, Manning said.

The regulations 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.

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