Pot license holder sues Gig Harbor for damages

In the wake of a new marijuana moratorium — this time lasting a year — a local retail license holder is fed up with the process.

Tedd Wetherbee, owner of the Gallery, has filed a tort claim against the City of Gig Harbor for $3.5 million in damages. The city has referred the suit to its insurance company. Wetherbee is also the plaintiff in a lawsuit against the City of Fife. A Pierce County Superior Court judge upheld Fife’s ban, but Wetherbee has appealed. That suit is what caused the Council to tread slowly with marijuana and enact the 12-month moratorium Monday night.

The Council passed the moratorium, 6-1, effectively preventing Wetherbee from opening a retail marijuana store for a year, unless somehow the moratorium is lifted. Wetherbee said Tuesday that he hopes to reach a deposition phase in his suit against the city. He believes it will reveal that the moratorium was the work of Councilmember Tim Payne, who wants to keep retail marijuana out of the city and worked behind the scenes to get a moratorium passed and drum up opposition to retail outlets.

“(The Council) created the argument, they created the opposition and they created this whole mess,” Wetherbee said.

Payne said it was his idea for the emergency moratorium, but he didn’t bring it up for any nefarious reason. He says that as the license lottery approached he felt the playing field shifting in the state. There was a case on collective gardens in Kent, assumptions about revenue sharing and other issues with the state Liquor Control Board.

“I don’t think there was any masterminding going on here,” Payne said.

According to state law, the tort claim is held for 60 days, then the claimant can file a lawsuit. City Attorney Angela Summerfield said the waiting period allows cities to examine complaints and right any wrongs there may be.

“So it’s basically a first step in filing a lawsuit,” she said.

Wetherbee claims that the emergency six-month moratorium on the eve of the license lottery essentially pulled the rug out from under his business. What followed were months of meetings, hearings and impassioned testimony to the Council. Some encouraged an outright ban; others implored the Council to lift the moratorium and let retail marijuana to be in the city, according to the law.

None of that was happening last fall, when the Gig Harbor City Council unanimously approved an ordinance allowing and regulating marijuana uses in the city at a Sept. 23, 2013 meeting. But for Payne, what was understood back then isn’t the lay of the land now.

“There was a general feeling that we rushed in way too fast way back when,” Payne said.

After the ordinance was adopted last fall, however, Wetherbee began working with the planning department to approve a location at 5775 Soundview Drive, which he leased. Due to what may end up being 16 months of moratoriums in total, it won’t open for awhile. That’s business he’s losing, the complaint states. He’s also not able to recoup state licensing fees he’s already paid.

“Here we were following (guidelines) only to be led down a path for eight months and 20 meetings,” he said.

The complaint is specific to Wetherbee’s situation, but he says it is also his way of addressing what he sees as a general neglect of the public by the city.

“Now, someone’s going to stand up and stop them,” he said. “And that’s me.”

It’s early, Summerfield said, but she’s confident in the city’s position. While the facts may be different than the case in Fife, the result of that case did uphold a citywide ban on marijuana.