As clock winds down, Gig Harbor still debates marijuana sales

A year after approving an ordinance that allows retail marijuana sales in the city, the Gig Harbor City Council is still debating whether retail pot has a place in this community of more than 7,500 people.

The council is divided on the question. Some want to see better protection of trails, parks and other areas where children and families visit. But others think adding to the list of off-limits zones would result in a de facto ban.

Some want an outright ban on pot sales. But others want a compromise that upholds the will of Gig Harbor voters who approved decriminalizing recreational marijuana under state Initiative 502.

The discussion will continue at the council meeting Monday. No final decision is expected, but city planning staff members have asked council members to go line by line through nine points they previously identified to determine whether the marijuana ordinance should be amended.

One area of consensus is that more time might be needed to find the right answers, even as the clock winds down on the city’s temporary moratorium on pot sales.

“My biggest fear is we would act too quickly and impose or implement regulations that we are stuck with that don’t work for Gig Harbor,” said first-year Councilman Casey Arbenz. “With all the litigation and uncertainty about what (Initiative) 502 allows local cities to do, I think the prudent thing is to be very cautious in what we impose. We can’t make a mistake.”

The council is also watching how the issue plays out elsewhere in Pierce County and the rest of the state.

The recent decision by Pierce County Superior Court Judge Ronald Culpepper to uphold the city of Fife’s ban on retail marijuana sales likely won’t affect the council’s immediate discussions, but it is something the group will continue to monitor, said Arbenz, an attorney.

“I suspect this case will go all the way to the Supreme Court, and I think that’s something we need to take into account,” he said.

The council voted to put the brakes on recreational marijuana sales within city limits in April when it imposed a six-month moratorium. This gave the council time to look into whether 1,000-foot buffers should be applied to two nontraditional school sites that previously weren’t on a state list of protected schools and parks as required by I-502. It also gave the council time to discuss repealing medical marijuana uses in the city.

The moratorium expires in October. If the council isn’t ready to make a decision by then, it could extend the timeout another six months at its Sept. 22 meeting.

Gig Harbor is one of a handful of cities in Pierce County still wrestling with what to do about pot sales. Puyallup also is set to decide this month whether to approve marijuana regulations or extend its own moratorium.

The Gig Harbor council has begun to look deeper into the potential implications of retail marijuana sales in the city. That includes whether the state’s definitions of protected places align with the city’s definitions.

Councilman Michael Perrow has proposed that the Cushman Trail be considered a park and have the 1,000-foot buffer as required by state law.

At its Aug. 11 meeting, the council also debated whether privately owned and operated playgrounds — including the one at the Dairy Queen, at the corner of Point Fosdick and Olympic drives — should have a 1,000-foot buffer because it is used by the public.

One potential retail marijuana store owner questioned that reasoning.

“Not one other city in Washington state has recognized a fast food play area as a ‘playground’ in the 502 guidelines requiring a 1,000-foot buffer,” Dino Formiller wrote in a letter to the council.

Formiller has been approved by the state Liquor Control Board to operate a licensed retail marijuana location on Point Fosdick Drive, according to his letter. His site complies with buffers as required by the state initiative, but if the council were to add the Dairy Queen playground to its protected list, he would not be able to open.

Adding the buffer there would result in a “de facto ban” that does not recognize the intent of Gig Harbor voters who approved 502, Formiller wrote.

Councilman Ken Malich agrees. Adding to the list of protected places, including the Cushman Trail, would result in a de facto ban in the city, he said.

Malich acknowledges there’s been a groundswell of opposition to marijuana sales in the city; he says the majority of emails he receives are against retail pot sales. Even so, he says the City Council’s task is to regulate how it could work in Gig Harbor.

“The opposition is saying ‘just ban marijuana.’ That is not what we’re discussing. We are just tweaking an ordinance we already had in place,” Malich said.

Councilman Tim Payne has a different take. The council approved its ordinance last September, before the state attorney general issued an advisory opinion stating cities can ban sales locally.

That, as well as recent legal action and Culpepper’s Aug. 29 court ruling in support of Fife’s ban, have Payne thinking that maybe the council could take a different approach.

“When you say ‘OK, the pot shop is going to be located at ...’ — that’s when all the sudden I think people wake up and realize that this is reality,” Payne said. “And they don’t want it by their house.”