Pot businesses in Fife draw panel’s OK

Fife is zeroing in on the issue of recreational marijuana, and the City Council is set to vote on proposed regulations this month.

The planning commission has issued a detailed recommendation in favor of allowing marijuana businesses within the city limits, prompted by voter-approved state Initiative 502.

The City Council had a public hearing on the proposal last week. Community Development Director David Osaki said the council will vote on the recommendation June 24.

If it is approved, retailers will be allowed in the city of more than 9,000 residents in some areas of a regional commercial zone, primarily along Pacific Highway East. Producers and processors would be permitted in industrial zones, primarily along the perimeter of the city limits.

The planning commission spent about six months researching the issue, and city officials say safety and community concerns were addressed.

Retailers would need to have frontages on Pacific Highway — meaning the land parcels would have to touch the street — for maximum “exposure.” Osaki said this is meant to increase public safety.

City Councilman Pat Hulcey seemed cautious about the frontages along Pacific Highway, noting that the provisions don’t prohibit retailers from moving in across the street from homes.

Mayor Tim Curtis said after Tuesday’s hearing that he’s concerned the planning commission didn’t address marijuana businesses’ proximity to Fife hotels.

The recommendation calls for at least 2,500 feet between any marijuana retailers.

Osaki said that provision, paired with the highway frontage requirement, would essentially limit the number of stores allowed in the city. He estimated that the proposal, if approved, would allow for no more than five stores, and likely fewer given the available space along Pacific Highway.

The state Liquor Control Board has allocated 17 at-large retail licenses to unincorporated areas and small cities in Pierce County — a group that includes Fife. The state hasn’t granted any retail licenses yet, but four of the 45 at-large lottery slots for Pierce County list a Fife address.

The recommendation also expands on a 1,000-foot buffer requirement. State law already prohibits pot facilities within 1,000 feet of schools, day care centers, libraries and other places geared toward minors.

The recommendation in Fife says any marijuana operations must be at least 1,000 feet from any parcels zoned “public use/open space.” Osaki said that guarantees protection for all public facilities, even if they aren’t specifically spelled out in state law.

“It takes the interpretation issue away from the (state) Liquor Control Board,” he said at Tuesday’s meeting.

Finally, no marijuana businesses would be allowed to operate at residences.

The proposal would prohibit collective gardens. Osaki told The News Tribune that because medical marijuana policy in Washington is uncertain, the planning commission wanted to avoid integrating medical and recreational pot rules.

“It was not a statement about medical marijuana,” he said.

Only a handful of citizens spoke about the recommendation Tuesday night.

Tedd Wetherbee — a Gig Harbor resident who has secured two lottery slots for marijuana licenses and hopes to open stores in Gig Harbor and Fife — praised the work done by the Fife planning commission. He said they’ve done “exemplary” work “to get this right,” and he urged the City Council to follow the recommendation.

Wetherbee has had more friction with his proposed marijuana business in Gig Harbor.

Other citizens were cautious of the proposed rules.

Resident Carol Sue Braaten said staff should consider THC — the active ingredient in cannabis — and address the varying levels of potency of marijuana products.

Kory Edwards spoke as a concerned citizen while simultaneously representing the planning commission.

He said his interpretation of I-502 was that “it wouldn’t be punishable to consume” marijuana, not that cities should allow retailers to sell it.

Edwards added that if the City Council approves pot sales, it would force police officers to ignore federal law.

The U.S. government considers marijuana a Schedule I narcotic.

“Until (federal laws) change at the highest level, we have a responsibility to honor them,” Edwards said.

The Fife City Council will take final action on the proposal before a moratorium is set to expire in August. A first reading will occur June 24, and Osaki said a final vote will likely happen in July.