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City ponders pot zoning

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The University Place Planning Commission is set to announce its recommendation to make changes to the zoning rules before the City Council on April 3. This recommendation would allow retail marijuana stores in commercial areas of the city’s mixed-use zones. That is, of course, provided the City of University Place lifts the ban on marijuana that was voted on unanimously by the City Council back in 2014.
In September 2016, University Place’s City Council tasked the Planning Commission to review the current zoning regulations and research if there were any feasible locations for cannabis retail stores within the city’s commercial areas, provided the ban was reversed, and study other cities in similar situations. The commission came up with several locations on 27th between Mountain View Avenue and Mildred Street that could potentially be applicable locations.
“Should the ban be lifted,” said David Swindale, Director of Planning Development Services, “retail cannabis stores would be allowed within these mixed-use zones, and be allowed by a conditional-use permit process. Retailers would then apply for a land-use permit, go through an application process, and then go through an examiner to make sure conditions are met to make it compatible with the surrounding area.”
The proposed rules were voted on at a well-attended public hearing on Feb. 15. The proposal put forth by the commission includes that the stores in the mixed-use zoning maintain a 1,000-foot buffer from a number of sensitive areas, such as schools, playgrounds, day cares, arcades, public parks, libraries and transit centers. Growers and processors would be restricted to light-industrial zones and require a buffer of 100 feet from single-family neighborhoods, though state law still mandates these industrial facilities still be 1,000 feet away from schools and playgrounds. There was some debate at the public hearing in regards to adding churches to the sensitive receptor list. Swindale, however, argued that if churches were included in the list, there would be no viable locations in University Place whatsoever. The Planning Commission ultimately sided with Swindale, and voted in favor of the proposed rules and adjustments to contingent zoning 4-1.
While this may seem like good news to residents looking for the ban to be reversed, City Attorney Steve Victor emphasizes that the Planning Commission’s zoning recommendations and the ban on marijuana are two completely different things.
“The issue of the ban will not come before the council in this exercise,” he said. “And that’s where a lot of people, including residents, are confused.”
The ban on marijuana sales in University Place can be lifted in one of two ways. The first way would be if the federal government lifted its ban on the substance, making it legal for the whole country. The second would be if the City Council decides to pursue lifting the ban, a proposal that would require two council members to bring it to the floor for the rest of the council to review it.
With the current presidential administration and new Attorney General vocally opposing the use and sale of recreational marijuana, the outlook on the federal government lifting their ban on the substance is largely unknown. While it is unlikely the administration will directly enforce federal law in states where the sale of marijuana is legal, it is certainly possible the administration can withhold federal funding on these grounds. It is this type of funding that is essential to the infrastructure of University Place. Because of this, Victor is not sure if removing the ban on marijuana sales within city limits is such a good idea after all. While noting this is not his decision, Victor has come to the conclusion that “the risk of losing federal funds potentially outweighs the benefit of taxes at this point.”
What the council plans to do with the recommendation provided by the Planning Commission also remains a mystery. They could do anything from choosing to adopt the recommendations to doing nothing whatsoever.
Bans on recreational marijuana retail stores has been a hot button issue for many communities since the state of Washington allowed its sale to the public in the summer of 2014. Currently, marijuana sales are allowed in the nearby cities of Buckley, Fircrest, Tacoma and, most recently, Fife.

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