Maple Valley City Council edging towards opening doors for more marijuana businesses

City of Maple Valley Logo

Marijuana business owners and users continue to push the envelope of acceptance as a legitimate business like any other business with the City of Maple Valley only becoming the latest city to grapple with the question as to whether to open the gates to marijuana businesses within the City or not.

After being tasked by Council to consider whether recreational marijuana should be allowed in the City in the future, Planning Commission members began looking at the issue once again in November 2016. During that several month process, two Public Hearings were held – January 18, 2017 and February 1, 2017 – at which time approximately 60 citizens came forward with their testimonies. As reported by Planning Commission Chairman Robert Rohrbach, the split of those supporting the marijuana business and those not supporting the businesses within City limits was pretty much even. It was also interesting to note that a good number of those speaking in favor of the marijuana business were employees of the only shop currently doing business within the City.

As of this point in time, city zoning code does not allow for the sale of recreational marijuana within the city limits due to federal prohibitions. Two sections within the code reflect that notion. Following the Public Hearings, a three-week deliberation regarding marijuana businesses in the City netted Planning Commission members to recommend to continue to allow for the sale of recreational marijuana, but limit the number of stores allowed in the City to be only one. This recommendation was presented to City Councilmembers on Monday, March 27.

During his statement to the Council, Rohrbach stated that the Commission felt the City should take some time to evaluate what the long-term effects would be with the sale of marijuana. He pointed to not knowing what the revenue from the one store in the City is yet, or what if any negative impacts there might be, or if the market would support another store within City limits.

When Councilmember Erin Weaver asked about why only one store was recommended, Rohrbach began by answering a comment made earlier about no competition for the one store in the City. He stated that even though there was one store in the City, it would have competition from Covington as well as other stores in King County.

“The idea again was try to balance between the number of people who were in favor of having the store and the people who felt that the 502 initiative did not demand that we have a store. And so one store that is already here, has already established itself it seemed appropriate to stick with one store and figure out in the future if you want to have a second store. We can always do that. We can always add it. But once you allow it, you can’t take it away. And that’s where we are with one store now, we can’t take it away.”

Another question asked by Deputy Mayor Dana Parnello was why the marijuana business was taking so much Council evaluation unlike pizza parlors, Mexican restaurants and places that sell candy, alcohol, and more. Robrbach stated, “The fact is, this isn’t a Mexican restaurant, it isn’t anything like a hamburger stand. This is a controlled substance that has special exemption under a state legislation. So we want to go slowly and make sure we’re not making a mistake. That’s our recommendation as a Planning Commission.”

Parnello went on to say that why he understood the concerns for health and social impacts of controlled substances, at the same time he did not think there was any data to suggest there was any difference to alcohol. There also was not the level of scrutiny to other types of businesses such as alcohol, fried foods and candy where there are health consequences as well. For him, the market would tell if a business succeeds. “If we’re going to allow one, then how can we say the other one can’t come in. If the other one’s not viable, or if two aren’t viable, one of them will fail and go away. The market does that.”

After a couple more questions, Council went into Executive Session to discuss legal issues regarding marijuana. Upon return, Councilmembers each took turns making statements regarding whether to support or not the Planning Commission’s recommendation to continue to allow for the sale of recreational marijuana, but limit the number of stores allowed in the City to be only one.

Starting off the statements was Councilmember Bill Allison, who recommended not adopting the Planning Commission’s recommendation. While he respected both sides for their beliefs, “If the market allows for it, I’m ok for it. The market in our own community will say whether a second store survives or not.”

For his part, Councilmember Les Burberry recognized the medicinal use of marijuana and feels that one store in the City is adequate for putting medicinal use in the community. However, he pointed to drug driving being the most prevalent factor in fatal accidents. He went on to say that the data supports the fact that since I502 was passed there has been an uptick of THC in the systems of those in fatal accidents. The figures coming in from the State of Washington Traffic Safety Council as well as AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety (on a national level), who is seeing the reversal of decades of decreasing fatality rates per miles driven.

“Now these are real deaths, real fatalities, real lives affected and the fact that we are even considering as a community the economic potential is hard for me to grasp,” said Burberry. “There’s no reason that I can see to trade revenue for fatality accidents. The second store is a proliferation issue. Obviously, the more outlets, the more opportunity and the larger distribution. It just goes hand in hand.”

If the second store if viable, Parnello stated it will succeed and the first would go away if the success of the second is greater by dramatic measure. Should either one or the other go away, maybe then something would come in that is better.

“That’s the nature of the open…free market,” said Parnello. “If the community doesn’t support them, they will go away. If the community does supports them, they will succeed. That’s the beauty. Our citizens are voting every day on whether they want this business in town or not.” He also indicated that he was not going to support the Planning Commission’s recommendation and that the City should go with the State’s allowed number of marijuana business within the City.

Also supporting not going with the Commission’s recommendation for similar reasons as mentioned by Allison and Parnello, Councilmember Erin Weaver was in favor of allowing both marijuana stores. She stated that the City sells tobacco and alcohol which are all unhealthy and issues that can cause danger – particularly alcohol. “I don’t feel like it’s our business to get into the business of predicting competition and how that’s going to affect businesses.”

Not considering marijuana businesses as being an incoming revenue stream, Councilmember Megan Sheridan looked at not having them as outgoing revenue from the City. Looking at economics and bringing businesses into the City, Sheridan stated “We are so desperate to overcome being the city of ‘no,’ which we have been for almost not an entire 20 years, but pretty close. And we are finally headed in the right direction of saying, ‘yeah, we want this.’ We don’t want to continue to burden our local small businesses and our homeowners by having to increase the tax burden.”

Sheridan went on to state that she was not looking at the second store as being a marijuana store, but rather another business that wants to be here and she does not want to “exacerbate the ‘no’ and be that community again.” Following a few more comments, Sheridan stated she would follow suite with the other three Councilmembers in not going with the Planning Commission recommendation.

A longtime advocate wanting to see a moratorium on any marijuana facilities in the City, Councilmember Linda Johnson angrily stated, “Economic development based on marijuana to my way of thinking is not what I want for this City. It makes no sense to me at all and it’s not the kind of economic development that I want to see grow and prosper…The fact of the matter is this Council has been put in an untenable position as far as I’m concerned. I’m going to support two facilities because I don’t see a way around it. I don’t like it, I won’t support any more. I don’t care how many try to come in. I will be fighting them.

“I’m sorry that we’re even having this conversation because I think that we’re being pushed in a direction by all of the liberals in Seattle and King County over whom we have absolutely control. And we don’t get to do for our City what we want to do for our City. So I’ll support the two, but that’s it.”

Mayor Sean Kelly echoed the other five Councilmembers not supporting the Planning Commission’s recommendation. After doing quite a bit of research on the marijuana businesses, Kelly considered them no different than a liquor store. He mentioned the marijuana stores checking IDs several times, being highly regulated, and them being inspected a lot by the Liquor Control Board.

Staff will bring two ordinances back to Council – one supporting just two marijuana businesses and the other which would allow as many businesses as the Liquor Board allows – at the Monday, April 10, City Council meeting. During a short discussion, Parnello stated that if the marijuana businesses were capped, he wanted to see caps on tobacco, alcohol, and other prescription drugs.

Meanwhile, a second marijuana business has been waiting in the wings to see what Councilmembers do as far as allowing any more businesses within the City. While the business owner has not applied for a City permit at this time, he does hold an approved State Liquor & Cannabis Board license permit.