Businessman vows to sue Fife for right to open marijuana store

Tedd Wetherbee, who has spent thousands of dollars on a proposed art-gallery marijuana store in Fife, isn’t giving up on his business, despite the City Council’s decision this week to ban all pot operations in the city.

“As a businessman who’s invested this amount of time and money, I’m not just going to walk away,” he told The News Tribune.

Wetherbee’s next step is challenging the City Council, which is poised to adopt its ban in a final vote next month. The Gig Harbor resident plans to file “several lawsuits” as soon as possible to save his venture, called The Gallery. He said he’s certain the city will lose.

The Fife City Council voted 5-2 Tuesday to ban marijuana operations, ignoring a planning commission proposal that favored allowing pot businesses but restricting them to certain parts of the city.

Fife would join other South Sound cities – including Lakewood, University Place and Sumner – in keeping such businesses out of city limits. Pierce County adopted a de facto ban that blocks the manufacturing, processing and sale of marijuana in unincorporated areas until the drug is decriminalized at the federal level.

Community Development Director David Osaki said Fife’s ban isn’t contingent on federal law, though the City Council could always revisit the issue if marijuana were decriminalized by the federal government.

Council members cited uneasiness about the new legal territory and many denounced the lack of financial benefits; they said it’s unfair that the city would receive no tax revenue from the state-regulated industry.

Wetherbee said he agrees that cities should get a cut of the profits, but he doesn’t think the council should ban marijuana businesses for that reason. He called Fife’s ban an “insult to democracy,” and said it was absurd that council members would suggest people didn’t know what they were voting for when they supported state Initiative 502.

“It’s ridiculous to try and second guess what’s in the minds of the voters,” Wetherbee said. “That’s an insult to the intellect of the voters.”

Wetherbee has faced similar resistance in Gig Harbor, where he hopes to open another retail location. He drew high numbers in a state marijuana license lottery that could position him to open some of the first pot businesses in the two cities. Washington’s first retail pot operations are expected to open in early July.

The Gig Harbor City Council recently approved an emergency moratorium to give city staff time to address a concern that some retail marijuana businesses – including Wetherbee's – would open near two school programs. The council took public comment on the moratorium June 9, but has not made a decision on how to proceed. The moratorium expires in October.

Tuesday’s abrupt decision in Fife erased several months of research and discussion that many – even proponents of the ban – considered a thoughtful approach.

“I think the planning commission has an excellent recommendation they sent forward,” Councilman Rob Cerqui said just before he voted in favor of the ban.

Cerqui was joined by Mayor Tim Curtis and fellow council members Pat Hulcey, Barry Johnson and Lew Wolfrom, who all supported the ban; council members Winston Marsh and Bryan Yambe opposed it.

Yambe said Thursday he supports the planning commission’s recommendation, as well as Fife voters’ backing of Initiative 502.

“I’m not comfortable as an elected council member to try and interpret what the voters meant when they voted for it,” Yambe said. “Our job as elected (officials) is to find a way to make it work.”

But he also acknowledged that a lack of profit-sharing for the city is an issue that the Legislature needs to address.

City officials said an outright ban was always an option, and Tuesday’s vote wasn’t an unexpected course change.

Osaki, the community development director, said the planning commission explored many potential outcomes when the process began in January.

“I always thought a ban was within the scope of what the planning commission or council could have done,” Osaki told The News Tribune.

City Attorney Loren Combs agreed, adding that the public will have a chance to comment before a final vote is taken. A date has not been set.

Combs added that, despite Wetherbee’s threats of litigation, the city is working within the law.

“The ordinance that the city passes will be legally defensible,” he said. “Cities have a right to ban the sale and production of marijuana.”

The City Council and some residents also expressed concern that allowing pot operations in the city could increase crime and costs for the police department. But several staff members noted Tuesday that there’s no data to support that concern.

Wetherbee said the primary issue is that the city ignored the will of the voters for financial reasons. He said Fife wouldn’t be blocking pot businesses if the state were sharing tax revenue.

“If the state were giving them money,” he said, “they’d be begging for it.”