Originally Published: December 22, 2015 6 a.m.
CHINO VALLEY - If you include the Sept. 22 Chino Valley Town Council meeting where resident Chad Nanke stood up and said he was worried about the increase in medical marijuana cultivation facilities in town, there have been six meetings and more than eight hours of official debate on the subject.
Many of the arguments have been repeated often, and most of the points raised by both sides have little to do with the issue the town is considering, which is possibly changing zoning ordinances.
Council members were eager to keep the debate focused during the public work study session on Thursday, Dec. 10. Mayor Chris Marley and Vice Mayor Darryl Croft interrupted anyone who veered off the zoning issue.
"I realize this is an emotional subject, but we're here to conduct town business," Marley said. "... That's why we're here tonight, to discuss possible changes to our zoning ordinances. ... I don't want folks talking about it's immoral, or it's illegal. ... We need to be dealing with the zoning ordinances themselves."
During debate at three council meetings and three Planning and Zoning Commission meetings, the focus has been on the plant itself. It appears a majority of residents, based on the speakers, are opposed to marijuana being legalized and are fearful that having possibly six greenhouse facilities in Chino Valley growing the crop will put a stigma on the town. Residents have said they are worried about their property values declining and the message it sends to their children. They have also said they worry about the sites inviting crime. Most of all, they object to having a grow site on the front porch of town on Road 4 South, next to the three horses roundabout. Work on that site is what ignited the current debate.
Growers and other supporters counter that the medical marijuana cultivation facilities have been active in Chino Valley for more than two years and have hardly been noticed by residents. They say that there has been no decline in property values (in fact, they're going up), that children still cannot purchase marijuana legally and that the sites are secure and have had no criminal incidents of consequence. Most of the police calls to the sites have been minor, such as a false alarm by the security system. They have also argued that medical marijuana has shown great promise in helping those who need the medication and that they bring higher-paying jobs and spend money at other local businesses.
After Thursday's meeting two of the supporters of growing medical marijuana in Chino Valley said it appears the council has already made up its mind, based on the tone of their comments and that they asked few questions. The council has scheduled a vote for its next public meeting, Jan. 12, 2016, on seven options that would make it very difficult for new marijuana businesses to operate in Chino Valley.
The biggest revelation at Thursday's meeting is a possible motivation why the federal government is in no rush to change the status quo on marijuana laws. Because it is a violation of federal law, medical marijuana growers cannot deduct business expenses on their taxes. However, Congress refused to provide any money for federal agencies to prosecute marijuana growers or dispensaries in states that have legalized it.
"(My client) pays taxes on the full amount of his revenue," said Paul A. Conant, an attorney who works for medical marijuana grower Al Abrams. "By contrast to every other business in the state, the medical marijuana business pays a huge, enormous amount of taxes."
Conant said the Department of Health Services estimates $110 million of medical marijuana was sold in Arizona in 2014. He then estimated that growers in this state paid about $42 million in federal taxes. There are now 24 states and the District of Columbia where medical marijuana is legal. He suggested that might be one reason why federal officials have decided not to prosecute growers.
The biggest question remaining is: What will the council do with the current facilities? Passing many of the proposed ordinance changes would make them legal non-conforming businesses, meaning they'd be able to continue operating but would not be able to expand without some action by the council.
If they are prohibited from expanding, they could claim the town's new law has damaged the value of their property and file a Proposition 207 claim. That is the 2006 law passed by voter initiative called the Private Property Rights Protection Act, which gives property owners the right to compensation if the value of their property is hurt by actions of a government body.
"I understand that the citizens of Chino Valley may be sued by pot farmers with deep pockets, but let's make sure that the town obtains their own legal counsel from attorneys with expertise in land use and zoning laws that represents the citizens and what is best for citizens as a whole, and not what is best for pot farmers," Nanke said. "None of the citizens want to be sued, but we also do not want to be intimidated based on the threat of legal action."
It appears the time for talking about marijuana is over and the council is ready to act.
"You have to remember that we live here too," Croft said. "That we have property here, and that we have the same concerns that you do. Sometimes you have to make tough decisions."
Ken Sain is the associate editor for the Chino Valley Review and Prescott Valley Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @ksainjr, call 928-445-3333, ext. 2021, or 928-420-5341. Email him at email@example.com.