Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: What’s a park? An excuse for denying a marijuana license

When Washington legalized recreational marijuana use, it was safe to assume there were some confusing times ahead.

But just how confusing was impossible to foresee.

One of the most recent examples is in Lakewood. That’s where Jordan Michelson, a would-be recreational pot store owner, is locked in an ongoing battle with the city.

The question at the heart of the case: What constitutes a park and what doesn’t?

Turns out the answer is anything but simple.

As Pierce County Superior Court documents reveal, Michelson applied for a recreational marijuana retail license last year, intent on opening J&K Cannabis at 12825 Pacific Highway SW in Lakewood. The storefront, which Michelson says he’s spent roughly $30,000 to get ready for business, is a stone’s throw from the family-owned embroidery and framing operation he’s run since 2011 and his grandfather opened in 1979.

However, at least according to Lakewood Mayor Don Anderson, the pot shop Michelson dreams of is also within 1,000 feet of a park. To be more precise, it’s roughly 650 feet from one. When notified of Michelson’s recreational marijuana license application, Lakewood filed an official objection with the state Liquor Control Board, arguing, among other things, that the store’s proximity to the park constituted a violation of Initiative 502’s 1,000-foot rule prohibiting pot shops from opening near parks or schools.

When it comes to this park, which amounts to little more than a sign, just over 30,000 square feet of land, and a picnic table near a Sound Transit rail line right of way, the Liquor Control Board was skeptical, ultimately ruling that the park in question wasn’t actually a park.

“The objection letter (from Lakewood) did not provide an address or pictures of the amenities at the park, only a screen shot of the county assessor’s page identifying the parcel of the park. This park is also not mentioned on the city’s parks page,” Liquor Control Board investigator Tim Lynch noted in a review of Michelson’s application last October.

In December, after Lakewood was denied a hearing on the matter — because the Liquor Control Board decided the city had failed to meet the threshold to necessitate one — the state filed paperwork announcing its intention to approve Michelson’s recreational pot license.

End of story, right?

Not quite.

As is its right under state law, Lakewood requested a judicial review of the decision. The matter now sits in Pierce County Superior Court, with a hearing set for July. Michelson’s recreational pot license, meanwhile, remains pending.

The scenario, while rare, mirrors a situation in Edgewood last year in which that city argued an 18-acre chunk of property, purchased with park funds but currently undeveloped, should have been grounds to reject a recreational marijuana license application. The Liquor Control Board thought otherwise, but a judge eventually ruled Edgewood deserved more say in the process.

Lakewood is keenly aware of that precedent.

While declining to comment on the specifics of pending litigation, city of Lakewood spokesman Brent Champaco was able to tell me that, in Lakewood’s opinion, the park most certainly is a park. He noted that, along with another piece of property along Pacific Highway, it was created in March 2014 by the City Council through an amendment to the city’s master plan.

“It’s a small piece of land,” Champaco admits, “but it’s part of the council’s bigger vision to create as many recreational opportunities as possible.

“Sometimes we have to get creative with finding open space.”

Creative is certainly a good word for it. Michelson could offer a few others.

“I was just excited for the opportunity to do it, and to prove that we could bring a safe, regulated marijuana business to Lakewood,” he tells me. “I want to work with Lakewood. I’ve reached out to them a couple times. They’re really kind of sticking to their guns.”

Barring a change of heart and philosophy, however, an amicable relationship seems unlikely to blossom. While unincorporated Pierce County and some county cities such as Puyallup and Sumner have outright bans on the sale of recreational marijuana, Lakewood hasn’t gone so far. But the city has clung to a code that prohibits the issuance of licenses to businesses that break federal law, which in practice amounts to the same thing as a ban.

This, of course, raises the most obvious question of all: Why is Lakewood spending its resources fighting a recreational pot store that it has the power to prevent from opening in the first place?

I asked, and the city responded with a long-winded official statement.

“The city’s contention is about process,” the statement reads in part. “In sidestepping its responsibility, the state also sidesteps process, as it has denied local governments hearings on any application.”

Cutting through the smoke, that’s what this is really about. Cities like Lakewood don’t feel like the Liquor Control Board is holding up its end of the bargain and making sure I-502 license applicants are meeting the requirements of the initiative. More importantly, they want a process that ensures their voices and opinions are heard.

For the time being anyway, that underlying hang-up means arguing about silly things like what constitutes a park.