Eastern Arizona Courier Article by Laura Jean Schneider
The Graham County Planning and Zoning Commission on Wednesday voted against a zone rule change that would allow the cultivation of marijuana in agricultural zones.
The commission reached its decision in a vote that came after only two public comments.
The proposal will move to the Board of Supervisors for a final decision.
At least 19 members of the community, mostly female, signed in to attend. A mother with a baby in a stroller waited outside the meeting room, seemingly waiting for someone in the audience.
With no one representing the text amendment present, the commission moved to public comments.
Wende Macumber took the podium first, acknowledging that the commission has heard from her quite a bit in the past few years. She spoke against the text amendment. “To me, one, you don’t have to be like everyone else,” she said. “Two, maybe we’re the ones doing this the right way.”
“Who does it benefit?” Macumber asked the commission. “Whose voice are we listening to?”
“Let’s uphold this,” she urged, of the original zoning law, which allows cultivating marijuana only on mixed use industrial (M-X) land.
”I’m 92-years-old,” Planning and Zoning Chairman Gene Robert Larson said. “It took several, several meetings to come up with what we came up with,” he said allegedly referring to the initial marijuana zoning law introduced and approved in 2010.
“I know most Bonita residents support it,” Macumber said.
She was followed by Teri Fleming, who lives on Fort Grant Road.
“I live in an area surrounded by agricultural crops,” she said. But none of those crops, she pointed out, need an 8-foot-high fence around the perimeter, or reduce the property value of neighbor’s houses, harm a child if ingested, is federally illegal or has a noxious smell.
Reaching a decision
“Basically, I’m against it,” Commissioner Judy Motes-Driver said of the amendment. “You can grow, but you gotta go by the rules.”
Commissioner Peter Vlassis agreed, stating the amendment was “too broad.”
“We already have 50 pieces of M-X zoning around the county,” he said. He suggested a separate zoning ordinance for marijuana.
“I’ll make a motion to send to the Board of Supervisors an unfavorable decision,” Commissioner Mark Claridge said. After the motion was seconded, he asked for “a little more material to work with” on the the marijuana zoning issue, and questioned if some research might done on how other Arizona counties are handling it.
“How can we legally get a handle on this without getting sued?” Vlassis asked.
“This is Graham County, not damn Greenlee or anyone else,” Larson said.
He looked out at the audience.
“In these meetings, voice your opinion,” he said.
The meeting before the meeting
While Wednesday’s meeting was over within the hour, the text amendment application was the subject of much debate during the previous Planning and Zoning meeting on Sept. 21.
Phoenix attorney Timothy La Sota presented an argument for a title amendment submitted by Carolyn Oberholtzer on behalf of Pamela Brooks, who sought revisions to the current zoning ordinance that would permit marijuana growth under a conditional-use permit or certain conditions in agricultural (A) zoned land.
La Sota said the rest of the state of Arizona isn’t as restrictive as Graham County.
“There’s kind of a realization that these are indeed agricultural uses,” he said. “This would allow marijuana cultivation only in agricultural districts,” he said. “I do think this would be an improvement over the current code, which only allows for marijuana in the manufacturing district.
“We’re talking about harvesting, farming, we’re talking about growing the plants, that kind of thing,” he continued. “I think this takes the county in a direction that will make these sort of, these marijuana fights much less prevalent and much less divisive.”
“Well, this ordnance has been in order for a long time,” Larson said, adding “we haven’t run into any problems.”
La Sota said there are always new ideas and new ways of doing things that might be better.
“I don’t think that in itself is an argument not to change it,” he said.
‘We’re damn Graham County’
His statement appeared to raise Larson’s ire.
“Well you know, maybe I shouldn’t say it, but we have people come in from California and try to tell us how to do things in Graham County. You know what my answer is? ‘This is damn Graham County, and this is the way we like it,'” he said.
La Sota stated he’d lived his entire life in Arizona, and sometimes agreed with the statement concerning Californians, but not in this case.
“Well, we’re slow to change, because Graham County voted down marijuana,” Larson said. “We’re here to represent the voters, and the voters who voted it down in our county.”
Also speaking in defense of the zoning text amendment was Graham County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Vance Bryce. He urged the commission to support the amendment and nix relegating marijuana to M-X land only.
“This business regulation is unique to Graham County,” he said. “We have an aberrant code that is unfriendly to businesses because it forces them to create custom solutions and jump through specific Graham County hoops and obstacles.”
“I think the thing that I think is confusing is that we’re not asking people to use marijuana, we’re asking to be able to enjoy the tax revenue of growing it,” Chamber President Reed Richens told the commissioners.
Richins added he works with Kathy Grimes, executive director of the Graham County Substance Abuse Coalition and with youth substance abuse awareness via radio.
“Just like to me, if you grow, you know, some barley here in Graham County and you’re making beer out of it and you don’t want to drink beer, then don’t drink beer. Someone else is going do it; they obviously are,” he said.
Richens pointed out a previously approved growing facility “that’s failing, and it’s M-X zoned. So when it fails, anything can come in there. Literally anything. You could be living next to a nuclear waste dump because it’s wide open,” he said. “M-X zoning is wide open. To me it’s a protection for Graham County as far as protecting that property.
“Anyone can do anything they want with it if it fails,” he said.
The Graham County Board of Supervisors will discuss the text amendment in a future meeting yet to be determined.
Contact Laura Jean Schneider at LauraJean@eacourier.com