Whitefish pulls back on regs for marijuana retail stores

Deciding it wanted to further restrict where marijuana retail stores can operate and how they receive approval, Whitefish City Council last week pulled an item off its agenda regarding zoning regulations for marijuana sales and production businesses.

Two weeks prior Council approved changes to its zoning code, but when it came time to approve the second reading of the ordinance on Nov. 15 Council pulled the item. Following discussion for potential changes to the regulations from what was previously OK’d, Council decided to take up the item again at its Dec. 6 meeting.

The ordinance had been approved to allow marijuana retail sales to operate in the WB-1, WB-2 and WB-3 commercial zones and in the industrial zones of the city. However, Council last week said it no longer felt marijuana retail shops should be allowed in the WB-2 zone.

Councilor Frank Sweeney said in retrospect the ordinance as approved previously was bothersome.

“We should remove sales from the WB-2 zone and this should also not be an administrative conditional use permit because Council should be reviewing this,” he said. “We need to send this back to planning staff to look at and then come back to us.”

The planning department expects about 10 applications for retail marijuana shops once marijuana sales become legal in the state on Jan. 1, 2022.

During public comment, Rhonda Fitzgerald again asked Council to not permit marijuana retail in the WB-2 zone. She said doing so would only allow for other small retail businesses to eventually be permitted in the zone encouraging the creation of strip malls.

“The zones in our community have purpose and intent, and they designate where small retail shops should be permitted,” she said. “The WB-2 is for retail that needs a lot of space and a large parking area.”

The downtown business district is zoned WB-3 general business, but the area where shops could be located is also restricted because state law requires that such shops be at least 500 feet away from and on the same street as a building used as a church, synagogue or public school. Dispensaries are also prohibited within 150 feet of another dispensary to avoid clustering.

The WB-1 neighborhood commercial district would allow for the shops in select locations along Wisconsin Avenue. The WB-2 secondary business district runs along Highway 93 South from East Sixth Street south to the Montana 40 intersection.

Council also said it wasn’t comfortable with shops going through an administrative conditional use permit process that is approved by city planning staff rather than a regular conditional use permit that is approved by Council.

Council will hold another public hearing on the ordinance before making a final vote on Dec. 6.

City Attorney Angela Jacobs advised Council that it is in the best interest of the city to have the zoning regulations in place before marijuana sales become legal.

In approving the ordinance the first time, Council added a restriction to the location in downtown that marijuana shops can not be located on Spokane Avenue between Railway and Second Street to make a more restrictive setback adjacent to the middle school.

State law says dispensaries can’t use drive-up windows or vending machines. They have to have a single entrance and can only operate between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m.

Also, state law says those cultivating or manufacturing marijuana products can’t do so in a manner visible from a street or public area.

Manufacturing and testing facilities will be allowed in industrial zones and the WB-2. Outdoor cultivation is permitted where agricultural uses are permitted in the agricultural zone and the country residential zone, subject to state requirements such as screening from public view.

A citizen initiative passed in November 2020 made marijuana sales for adult use now legal in Montana beginning in 2022.

Whitefish in 2012 passed an ordinance that banned storefront medical marijuana dispensaries in city limits, but with the change in state law, the city is updating its regulations to allow for marijuana stores and production grow operations.

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