City planning board rejects proposed marijuana regulations

The city planning board voted unanimously during their Aug. 9 meeting not to recommend a proposed regulatory framework for marijuana activities to the City Commission.

The framework, as proposed by staff, and if approved, would only go into effect if the District Court finds that the city cannot prohibit marijuana activities as it currently does, or if the voters opt to allow marijuana activities in the city limits on the November ballot.

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All land uses for marijuana, such as sales, cultivation, testing and other activities are currently prohibited in the city’s zoning code since the code prohibits any land uses that are prohibited by federal law.

The prohibition is in the city land use code and does not address the use or possession of marijuana by individuals. Those issues are covered under state law.

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Earlier this year, the city was sued by the Dale and Janel Yatsko, asking the court to determine that the city didn’t have the regulatory authority to prohibit the marijuana activities.

That’s a civil case and those take time, sometimes years.

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During their Aug. 2 meeting, City Commissioners voted to send the question of allowing marijuana activities in the city limits to the November ballot.

The question on the ballot will ask voters if they want to keep that prohibition or not. So a yes vote is to keep marijuana activities prohibited, whereas a no vote would remove the prohibition and allow the sale, cultivation, manufacturing and testing in certain zoning districts.

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In preparation for the event that either the court or the voters remove the city’s prohibition on marijuana activities in the city limits, staff has proposed a regulatory framework for those activities.

The framework as proposed by city staff would amend city code to include state law definitions of authorized commercial marijuana activities; all commercial marijuana activities would be subject to state law licensure requirements; and those marijuana activities cannot be within 500 feet of and on the same street as a building used exclusively as a place of worship or school other than a commercially operated school, unless the locality requires a greater distance.

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City staff’s proposed framework would make state-licensed marijuana activities a permitted or conditional use in the city’s industrial zoning districts.

Under the proposal, dispensaries, testing laboratories would be allowed as a permitted use in either light or heavy industrial districts.

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Cultivation would be a conditional use in light industrial districts and a permitted use in heavy industrial districts.

Manufacturing would be a permitted use only in the heavy industrial districts.

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The city’s industrial districts are primarily located on the northern and eastern edges of town, though there are some around the refinery and along the railroad corridor.

During that meeting, some commissioners indicated they wanted to include some marijuana activities in commercial districts.

Staff revised the proposal that they brought to the planning board to reflect that with a proposed framework that would make dispensaries a permitted use in the industrial and C-1, C-2, C-3 and C-4 zoning districts and a conditional use in the C-5 commercial district and the M-1 and M-2 mixed use districts.

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The downtown core is C-4 zoning and 10th Avenue is C-2 commercial zoning.

Several planning board members said that they wanted a narrower start to allowing marijuana dispensaries.

No members of the public attended the meeting.

Staff explained that some communities have instituted other restrictions such as limiting the number of dispensaries and establishing their own local licensing process.

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Dave Bertelsen, the planning board chair, said the version they were considering was too broad and that he doesn’t want to see dispensaries on 10th Avenue South or downtown.

He said he would like to see the city limit dispensaries.

Pat Green, a planning board member, said he didn’t want to see them downtown or in commercial areas.

Chuck Pankratz, a planning board member said that the market would control the activities to some degree.

He said that the voters might opt to keep marijuana activities prohibited, but if they choose to allow it, they should have rules in place.

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“Maybe that’s what downtown great falls needs is some kind of business that actually thrives,” he said of dispensaries. “I don’t think it would overwhelm 10th or downtown as far as the number of dispensaries that would suddenly open up.”

Staff said there hadn’t been much interest in the city to open a dispensary. There was one application that the city didn’t process and was appealed to the City Commission, which upheld the staff decision.

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Another application was also received and the city didn’t process that one and the commission is hearing the appeal on Aug. 10.

The first applicant sued the city in district court challenging it’s authority to prohibit dispensaries.

The city commission is scheduled to review the proposed regulations for a first reading on Aug. 16 and a public hearing on Sept. 6 meeting.