Marijuana farm in Boulder: Commissioner says it's okay under old rules, not new ones

Back in June, commissioner Ben Pearlman told us about the passage of new rules for medical marijuana operations in Boulder County. An application to grow marijuana on the 67-acre Szymanski Farms property would have been rejected under the updated regs. But because the ap was filed before their passage, Pearlman and his fellows okayed it -- to the extreme displeasure of several neighbors.

Earlier this month, Boulder County's land-use department approved the application, submitted on behalf of current owners Steve and Cyd Szymanski and proposed buyer Scott Mullner, a city councilman from Laramie, Wyoming. The commissioners could have scheduled a public hearing on the matter, but Pearlman says one wasn't warranted.

"It's set up so that the land-use department makes a determination," he points out. "If the land owner doesn't like it, he can appeal it to the Boulder County commissioners -- and if we get information that comes in after the land-use determination has gone out, we'll take a look at it in light of that new information. Or we'll do that if we feel like a further review, an additional analysis is necessary.

"But in this case, the land use department had analyzed all of the impact thoroughly, and I think it was mostly people's interest that this kind of use not go in there that generated most of the comments."

That, plus confusion (or irritation) over the rules governing the application when it was filed.

"Effectively, what people were asking us to do was to not apply the land use code that was in effect when the application was submitted," he believes. "Rather, they wanted us to apply the land use code that was in effect after the application was submitted.

"The first one treats growing of medical marijuana as a common agricultural product," he continues. "But our new code limits grow operations to high-intensity zones: general industrial, light industrial, business, commercial and transitional. Because the impact is different for growing marijuana than it is for other more traditional crops, and because of concerns about security and the intensity of that use, we made the decision that we thought those five zones were the most appropriate for grow operations. But we didn't make the change before this particular application was in. And our charge is to apply the code that is legally in, not the code that come in after that."

Even so, Pearlman emphasizes that nothing will happen with the Szymanski property right away.

"The owners will have to go through all of the state licensure and local licensure requirements," he says, "and we don't even know what those are. Things are tremendously in flux. We don't really know what the rules are going to be for medical marijuana grow operations yet."

Not that this knowledge has reassured angry neighbors.

"They don't want to see the operation in this location, and that's what's given rise to their frustration," he notes. "We've heard a number of concerns: that it's going to draw people to the area who'll want to burglarize the grow operation, that it will be unsightly, that it will smell bad, that it will have an impact on their residences and other operations in the area. But I think time will tell just what the impacts will be, if it goes into effect.

"It's not clear that a year or two years down the line, there will, in fact, be a grow operation in this area. But they certainly wanted us to put an end to it."

That the commissioners let the land use department's conclusion stand has made them a target for considerable ire. Nonetheless, Pearlman stands by their ruling.

"We always hope people will understand that when we look at land use dockets, we do so in a quasi-judicial capacity," he says. "We don't make a decision about what we want to happen on a particular property. We judge whether a code allows it or doesn't allow it. Some people think we can do whatever we want, and that's not really the case. We can get decisions overturned if we do that. So we have an obligation to look very closely at the language of the code and then make a determination."

And they did -- to the presumed pleasure of buyer Mullner, and the unhappiness of numerous neighbors.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts