The controversy over medical marijuana grow operation regulations -- which now includes a threatened lawsuit targeting developer Mickey Zeppelin and councilwoman Judy Montero -- comes to a head at tonight's Denver City Council meeting. There, councilman Doug Linkhart hopes to stretch reviews at some grows from two years to four years. But he wishes such grandfathering would have no limits.
The regulations will be finalized at tonight's meeting, which is set to get underway at 5:30 p.m., unless the measure is amended, notes Linkhart, who's also a Denver mayoral candidate. "Then it takes another week," he says -- and he's clearly hoping that'll be the case. He explains his proposal like so:
"The way the bill is now, 52 grow operations that are non-conforming uses under the new zoning code would have to be reviewed in two years with a mandatory public hearing. What I proposed last week -- it failed six votes to seven -- was to allow a four-year period before the first review, and then reviews every two years after that. But I'm considering trying again tonight. I've been talking to a couple of councilmembers about whether they can change their votes."
Which ones? Jeanne Robb, who Linkhart says inspired him to propose his amendment in the first place but then voted against it, and Michael Hancock, another Denver mayoral hopeful.
As for why such a change would be justified, he notes that "these operations came in and were legal at that time. They got state permits, they got city zoning permits, and they invested sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars. I listed one that invested $2 million, actually, although it's not one of the 52. And I'd like to allow them a little more time to let them recoup their investment prior to possibly being shut down."
Numerous medical marijuana advocates argue that the council's grow regs are being pushed in large part by Zeppelin, a major developer in the River North neighborhood, also known as RiNo, who objects to a cooperative grow operation in the Brighton Boulevard area. When asked if he agrees with this theory, Linkhart avoids mentioning Zeppelin by name, but he alludes to his position.
"It's puzzling to me what is driving the move to remove these grow operations or make them subject to public review," he admits. "I don't understand the logic, frankly. The proponents tell me they'd rather have something else in these locations -- that they're interrupting potential redevelopment of some of these properties. And I've listed some of these properties and gone to Brighton Boulevard. Right now, that's the only source of opposition I've heard. The bill affects many parts of town -- probably ten different areas of the city. But I haven't heard any complaints from anywhere else other than Brighton Boulevard and maybe a couple of people in Globeville. Although we've heard from from some other people that they appreciate these operations in Gloveville.
"The grow operation called Riverside, which is just off Brighton Boulevard, has a dispensary on site and a grow operation -- and if the bill passes like it is, in two years, their grow operation could be shut down, but the dispensary would stay open. Now, this is a purely industrial area, and I have no idea why anybody would want to shut down the grow operation and leave the dispensary. If anything affects the area, it's the dispensary, not the grow operation, which is wedged between a Pepsi bottling company and a vacant lot. So I have no clue why people are feeling this is an issue. Grow operations are invisible. There's no signage, no customers, no cash on site, and there are other uses in the area that create the same obstacle to development, like a junkyard that takes a full block on Brighton. It's also a non-conforming use and certainly doesn't represent the kind of industrial mixed use the community is looking for. But they're not treating the junkyard in the same way they're treating this invisible medical marijuana grow operation."
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A two-year span prior to a mandatory review "deters investment," Linkhart believes. "I've talked to people at a couple of businesses in the area who have put hundreds of thousands of dollars into their operations and are on the verge of putting in more money. But if they have the uncertainty of potentially shutting down in two years, it makes it very difficult to get loans, to justify an investment decision. It takes probably a year just to get the money they're talking about putting in, so a two-year horizon is incredibly short for any kind of investment. That's my concern -- not so much that they'll invest and then be shut down, but simply that they won't invest in the first place."
If he had his druthers, however, grow operations would "be grandfathered long-term" rather than be subjected to mandatory review even four years into the future. As he points out, "we've done that with medical marijuana centers if they're located too close to a school or child care, or too close to each other. That grandfathering lasts forever, as long as they stay in operation. And there's some logic in saying a dispensary that has customers and cash and signage and is visible to the community has an effect on the surrounding area. But there's no logic in saying that about a grow operation. These are shuttered warehouses -- buildings that have no effect on the surrounding community. Maybe people feel like we were too lax with the dispensaries, so they're going to get tough on grow operations. But the problem is, when you put the grow operations out of business, it puts dispensaries out of business, too, because they're mandated to grow 70 percent of their own products. If they can't grow their own products, they can't stay in business."
So why suggest a four-year review? He fears he wouldn't have enough support among fellow councilmembers for unlimited grandfathering -- and four years is better than two. Even so, "state law allows public hearings on renewal on any of these properties at any time. You don't need mandatory public hearings every two or four years, because you can always ask for a public hearing by state law. So it's a needless bureaucratic exercise, especially since most of the fights over this are about one or two operations on Brighton Boulevard -- and we're imposing this now on operations all over town."
More from our Marijuana archive: "Medical marijuana grow operator's lawsuit targets Zeppelin Development, Judy Montero."