After lengthy discussion, the Morton County Planning and Zoning Commission recommended last week that a request by Brian and Angie McGinness, of Riverbound Farm, for a special use permit for the establishment of a medical marijuana compassion center near St. Anthony be denied.
The request, which garnered disapproval by a 7-2 vote but will be considered by the Morton County Commission on Thursday, is a first for the county, according to Natalie Pierce, Morton County’s director of planning and zoning.
“It’s something interesting and out of the usual routine,” she said.
The McGinnesses own a 38-acre farm, where they operate an organic produce subscription service. The couple, who have partnered with 30 others to create a separate entity apart from Riverbound Farm, are interested in establishing a medical marijuana growing/processing facility on 3 acres of their existing farm.
The North Dakota Department of Health began accepting applications from potential manufacturers of medical marijuana March 16, with an April 19 deadline. The McGinnesses and their partners are aiming to be one of the two manufacturers the state selects to be registered.
"An understandable concern is that people think that this is going to be linked to criminal activity," said Brian McGinness on Tuesday, noting that what he is proposing is a "very safe scenario."
McGinness also indicated he has taken some of his neighbors' concerns into consideration and moved placement of the proposed operation farther into the property, about 1,000 feet from the road.
In order for the application to be processed and approved by the state, the county must first sign off on the location selected for the potential compassion center. One concern was lifted Tuesday from potential business owners after Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem issued an opinion that companies applying to grow or distribute medical marijuana are "not presumed to be subject" to North Dakota’s law prohibiting corporate farming.
"Although medical marijuana will be grown using horticultural techniques, there is nothing in the medical marijuana law that requires a compassion center to be located on farmland or ranchland," Stenehjem wrote of state law. "The law requires that medical marijuana be produced in an enclosed, locked facility that does not allow the plants to be visible from the street or other public areas."
Morton County will allow medical cannabis growing and processing facilities in its agricultural and industrial districts; however, a special use permit is required. The site of Riverbound Farm qualifies, as it's zoned agricultural and no schools, day care facilities, public parks, public playgrounds or churches are located nearby.
The county does not currently allow medical marijuana to be grown in greenhouses or hoop houses. If granted a special use permit, the McGinnesses said they would prefer to grow the product in four hoop house structures, while conducting processing activities in a smaller hard-sided structure.
“Greenhouse production of medical cannabis is widely accepted in the industry for its superior product and energy efficiency,” said Brian McGinness, noting greenhouse production is 10 times more efficient than growing medical marijuana in a warehouse. “This, in turn, allows for a much more affordable product to the patients.”
However, the couple said, if the request is granted, they are willing to adjust their plans according to the county’s zoning regulations. They've asked the commission to consider amending the ordinance to allow for the growing of medical marijuana in greenhouses and hoop houses.
A security fence, standing at least 8 feet tall with controlled access, would be installed on a portion of the McGinness property, and some paving or graveling would be completed to ensure commercial traffic can come and go with ease.
“Primary security will be achieved through fencing, security alarms and security cameras installed and monitored by professional contractors and the North Dakota Department of Health,” Brian McGinness said in the application for the special use permit.
"It is incredibly high security. It is so highly regulated," he said.
After reviewing the application, staff with the county's planning and zoning department recommended approval of the special use permit, which would be conditional upon the McGinnesses and their partners obtaining a compassion center license from the state health department.
“If these applicants succeed, the special use permit will be voided if they don’t obtain approval and licensing from the Department of Health,” Pierce said.
If ruled commercial in nature, Morton County would benefit from sales tax and commercial property tax revenues generated by the proposed use, according to Pierce. However, the county does not take in sales tax revenue for the wholesale of agricultural products.
In 2016, nearly 62 percent of Morton County voters approved a ballot measure in support of medical marijuana by a vote of 9,689 to 5,990.
Jason Wahl, director of the health department’s medical marijuana division, said his office has received about 115 letters of intent related to growing or dispensing medical marijuana. Letters of intent are not mandatory for an application, he added.
As for the eight dispensaries that can be located in the state, Wahl said the determination of who runs the two compassion centers will play into the dispensaries’ timeline. When the drug is available to be transferred to dispensaries is also a factor, he added.