In Sedro-Woolley, WA, self-storage owner Thomas Swett operates a storage facility where medicinal marijuana patients are free to grow cannabis. But his neighbors aren’t too happy about it, resulting in a legal case that’s moved from the city planner’s plate all the way to County Superior Court.
Swett’s A-1 Storage is equipped with 26 marijuana growing rooms, located 70 miles north of Seattle and 50 miles south of the Canadian border. One building is comprised of traditional storage lockers, and the other is a mixed-use project of sorts— storage units and hydroponic gardening systems, with which Swett is well-versed. According to City Council documents, “A-1 Storage provides the mechanical equipment within each locker, as well as technical advice on cultivating cannabis.”
Swett insists all of his tenants have approval from doctors, they do not sell the marijuana, and they abide by all state laws. As one would expect, these tenants speak highly of Swett. The problem is that A-1 Storage is located in a residential neighborhood.
After months of prosperous marijuana cultivation, the Sedro-Woolley City Planning Director requested that Swett apply for a conditional-use permit. With business booming, Swett complied and submitted an application to convert 14 more of his units into hydroponic gardens. When Swett's neighbors caught wind of the expansion request, they went up in arms.
TIMELINE OF THE FIGHT:
December 2, 2011. At a public hearing, a dozen neighbors show up to voice concern. One resident describes the storage facility’s expansion as “a legal term for a marijuana grow operation,” and another neighbor hyperbolically proclaims that “it will further the moral decay of the world.” More close to home, they worry the expansion will bring increased traffic, police presence, and a higher likelihood of break-ins.
December 19, 2011. Donald Largen, hearing examiner for the City Planning Department, rejects Swett’s request.
January 21, 2012. Swett makes a couple changes to his application and Largen approves it, granting him a permit to create 40 marijuana cultivation units in his self-storage facility. The permit is granted under several conditions: Business hours must be limited to 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., lighting must face down and away from neighbors’ homes, and the sign cannot exceed 20 square feet.
January 25, 2012. In response, two concerned neighbors, Karl Schewmaker and Richard Coursen, appeal Largen's ruling, bringing the case to City Council.
March 9, 2012. The Council reverses Largen’s decision, ruling that “it is difficult to find that the facility is currently an asset to the community.”
April 13, 2012. Swett subsequently files a lawsuit against the city in Skagit County Superior Court.
May 11, 2012. Court dates are set for later this summer.
STORAGE OWNER TOM SWETT’S ARGUMENT:
Washington state law mandates that a City Council can only base their decisions on content discussed in earlier hearings. Thus, according to Swett, the Council violated state law when they discussed the potential traffic ramifications of his facility expansion; traffic was not discussed at length in the earlier hearings. In addition to his conditional-use permit, Swett now seeks damages and attorney’s fees.
According to Swett’s legal documents, "the Council had no basis to find [that the] hearing examiner's findings and conclusions regarding traffic were wrong. No reliable, contradictory traffic information is included in the record... Simply disagreeing with the record and the hearing examiner's decision is not enough to lawfully overturn the hearing examiner's approval of the [conditional-use permit]." Swett continues, "Rather than following the process set out in the Sedro-Woolley Municipal Code, and reviewing the appeals of the hearing examiner's final decision in the Council's appellate capacity, the Council instead acted as another hearing examiner."
To put it mildly, medicinal marijuana is a confusing issue. Despite marijuana being legalized for medicinal purposes in 17 states, it is still illegal under federal law, and federal law supersedes state law. To complicate matters further, medicinal marijuana laws in the state of Washington are filled with inconsistencies and ambiguities. Even some of Swett’s opposing neighbors concede the case is far from straightforward.
What do you think?