WA: Sequim’s First Marijuana Farm Threatened To Close

Photo Credit: Randall Benton

Tropic Grow LLC, Sequim’s first recreational marijuana grower and producer, may be forced to close its doors in the near future.

The business’ owner, Tom Ash, said he is fighting to keep his business running after county officials stopped conducting inspections on his building permits after his conditional use permit for the business expired.

Tropic Grow LLC, considered a tier 2 marijuana producer, received its 502 license by the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board in April of 2014 to grow up to about 2,800 marijuana plants inside Ash’s Dungeness barn. It was the first business to receive a license to grow recreational marijuana on the North Olympic Peninsula.

“I spent hundreds of thousands of dollars doing this work,” Ash said.

Mary Ellen Winborn, Clallam County Department of Community Development Director, said the county cannot perform inspections on Ash’s building permits on his property where he operates his business because he did not complete the application process for his building permits, and because his conditional use permit expired in 2016.

Ash said his building permits weren’t supposed to expire until February 2018 and that he requested inspections for his building permits prior to that expiration date.

Winborn said Ash did not go through the correct process to request inspections and, because his conditional use permit expired in 2016, he no longer can have these inspections performed.

She said conditional use permits are valid for three years and building permits for two years, but part of the conditional use permit stipulations is to have building permits completed before the conditional use permit expires.

To complete the building permit application and permit process, a series of inspections on various parts of a building are required, and Winborn said Ash did not complete this process before his conditional use permit expired in 2016.

Winborn said Ash did not request an inspection on the building permits until after his conditional use permit expired.

Land use changes

In 2015, Clallam County Commissioners approved Ordinance 904 that developed local review standards for the placement and development of marijuana uses, such as where recreational marijuana can and cannot be grown, produced and sold in in the county.

Before this ordinance, as long as a business had a conditional use permit and a license from the state, a business could grow or produce marijuana. Once the ordinance passed, businesses could only grow, produce and sell marijuana within those guidelines and in designated areas in the county.

Ash’s property on Marine Drive in Sequim is not in one of the designated areas where marijuana can be grown and produced according to the county’s ordinance. Additionally, because of Ash’s location he can no longer get a conditional use permit to grow and produce marijuana.

“They’ve changed the rules. That’s why they refuse to inspect me because they forced me out of the conditional use permit, which grandfathered me on this property,” Ash said.

According to Winborn, who was elected as department director in 2015, Ash only asked for a final inspection and did not complete his other inspections. But Ash said this is not correct.

“The fact that (the county) states I never requested inspections is not accurate,” Ash said.

He said after he was approved for work on the property, inspections were scheduled and performed but the county stopped performing inspections in 2017. Ash said he was not notified his conditional use permit expired until after the fact.

To make the county aware of his situation, he has had several meetings with Winborn and discussed the matter with County Commissioner Mark Ozias, who was a witness on his behalf at an appeal hearing.

“I didn’t want to spend more money until they were willing to sign off on everything,” Ash said. “It didn’t make any sense to me how this was happening.”

Appeal to no avail

Ash appealed the county’s administrative decision to not extend his building permits and appeared before County Hearing Examiner Andrew Reeves at an appeal hearing on April 5 and was later denied on April 19.

A portion of Ash’s appeal states, “Condition 15 of the conditional use permit (CUP) clearly stated that the CUP would cease effectiveness if the associated use — a commercial greenhouse for growing and processing marijuana — was ‘not completely developed and operational within three years of the date of issuance.’”

It continued to say Ash did not completely develop the proposal or apply for an extension prior to expiration of his conditional use permit on Dec. 11, 2016. It also stated Winborn did not err in denying Ash’s request to extend his building permits associated with the expired conditional use permit.

Ash said it was not clear to him that he was not requesting inspections in the right way.

“(Winborn) knew I was requesting but at that point said ‘but you didn’t ask in the right way,’” he said.

“If I walked into planning today and said, ‘I need an as-build at my septic,’ they’d kindly say ‘You need to talk to the health department.’”

Winborn said the proper protocol to request inspections on a building permit is to call a number at the top left corner of the building permit document.

“If you had told me all you had to do is call the 800 number, I would have walked out of the office and called that number,” Ash said.

He said his contractor knows how to request permits and has been doing his job in the area for a long time.

Second attempt

After the hearing examiner denied Ash’s appeal, he appealed again for a request of reconsideration on April 23 — which was denied on May 8.

Ash said his next course of action is a “last resort,” taking his case to Clallam County Superior Court where he said he will seek for damages and the right to keep his business operating.

He said before that happens, he is meeting with each county commissioner individually this week to see if he can have his inspections done one last time before he takes his case to Superior Court.

“If I have to go to Superior Court, I’ll file for my right to do the business. I’ll file for damages because if they put this out of the business that’s a quarter-of-a-million dollars just in costs,” he said.

Ash’s business is still operating and he retains his license to operate from the state. As far as damages to his business, Ash said he has laid off about four employees and the business is down to just him.

He said he’s already spent $36,000 or more on legal fees and hundreds of thousands of dollars on the engineering, construction and design on the buildings he operates from.

“So where I stand now is I still have a grow because they can’t shut me down because I’m in an appeal process,” Ash said.

“I have to spend everything I have to try and get the right to continue to operate.”

Winborn said if Ash had gone through the correct process he could have kept his conditional use permit and continued to operate his business in his current location. She said one of his options now includes moving his business to an area where growing and producing marijuana is allowed in the county.

“We tried to give him every opportunity,” Winborn said.

“If he called before 2016 we would have honored (the conditional use permit) and he could have got an extension.”

Agree to disagree

Ash said he has a cordial working relationship with Winborn but that they completely disagree.

Winborn said she has not had issues with any other marijuana growers or producers in the county, and that last year the county issued 1,050 building permits and this year 30 more than this time last year.

“Because of Mr. Ash’s situation, we have put another step in our conditional use permit process,” she said.

“We will go out on site to make sure people are meeting the conditions of the conditional use permit before it expires (anywhere between three to six months).”

There are five marijuana producers in Sequim with three active, one closed and one pending. Tropic Grow LLC is still considered active.