Last night the Sunnyside City Council voted 5-0, with two absent, to impose a six-month moratorium on the producing, processing and selling of recreational marijuana within city limits.
The moratorium will give the council time to consider rules and zoning regulations within Sunnyside regarding the use of the drug, which the citizens of Washington voted to legalize in November 2012.
The council will hold a public hearing on the subject within 60 days. Although a potential date was discussed at the meeting last night, Mayor Jim Restucci said after the meeting that he is inclined to call a special meeting to allow the public time to speak on the topic. The date of the public hearing will be announced at the next council meeting.
Debate on the topic last night was vigorous, starting with a comment from Alex Newhouse, an attorney, during the public comments part of the meeting.
Newhouse urged the city to stay current, noting that under the new law some activities cannot be prohibited. Retail sales of the drug will be conducted under the authority of the state liquor control board. He told the council that state law pre-empts municipal code.
“I, probably moreso than most people, understand this is a very hot issue,” said Newhouse. He said that it is better for the city to do its best to implement the law than to resist and waste time and resources.
The council discussed the subject for more than 20 minutes, starting with a question from Councilman Francisco Guerrero about Newhouse’s statement that the city cannot prohibit marijuana sales. Restucci stressed that the moratorium is allowed by state law and that the city is not trying to outlaw the drug, only delay its legalization within the city in order to set up zoning rules and regulations.
City attorney Patrick Galloway also answered the question, saying that such moratoriums are common when a new state law affects local zoning. The purpose of the moratorium is to prevent licenses from being issued before the city can determine where activities can take place.
Councilwoman Theresa Hancock said that she would like to see rules in place for Sunnyside before the first of December, in order to match up with the official date the state is mandated to have the rule governing marijuana sales in place.
Hancock also pointed out that the liquor control board has already put some zoning restrictions on retail outlets, including prohibiting a store within 1,000 feet of any elementary or secondary school, playground, recreational cen-
ter or facility, child care center, public park, public transit center, library or game arcade that allows minors to enter.
Deputy Mayor Don Vlieger had a different opinion on the subject. He said 58 percent of Yakima County residents voted against legalization of marijuana.
“This is going to be a disaster,” he predicted. Vlieger said that marijuana is still prohibited federally and that cities cannot be mandated to break federal law. Vlieger asked how long the city could extend the moratorium. He said he believes the state will repeal the legalization in two years.
Councilman Jason Raines urged caution moving forward.
“As much as I favor individual freedom, I do think that we need to go slow on this,” he said. “I think a moratorium would give us some time to consider it and do the study that is needed of the issue.”
Hancock agreed that the city needs to protect people and neighborhoods. She said she supports the moratorium, but wants the city to get busy on the issue. She said she wants to make sure people are protected from invasion in their neighborhoods of growing or processing and also that the city is protected from lawsuits for not being ready when the liquor board starts issuing licenses.
“That’s my only comment and worry, that we wait until December first and are kinda caught with our pants down,” she said.
Vlieger didn’t directly disagree, but said he sees no reason to hurry and would rather wait and see what other cities do and how the issue is sorted out throughout the state.
“If we happen to be the last city in the state of Washington that allows retail sales of marijuana I will not be a sad man,” he said.
Raines said that the city should consider the children. He talked about statistics regarding marijuana use among children.
Guerrero said he also supports the moratorium, but he also supports Hancock’s position of getting rules and regulations in place to protect the city.
Restucci said the city will have to adopt rules and that he would prefer the city get ahead of the issue rather than being behind the curve. He said the moratorium will protect the city while it works on the issue.
He also said that the city has a good relationship with the liquor control board and that if the city had stated it didn’t want liquor sold in the city, the board would have taken that preference under consideration. He said he is sure the same will be true of marijuana.
Restucci also said that although the law was passed at the state level, no money came with the requirement. He said he wants to make sure that the city is ready for the changes so it doesn’t cost the city too much.
Hancock noted that the city will be able to charge a local tax on marijuana according to the law.
Vlieger finished up the discussion, saying that he does believe that the city should do its due diligence and be ready, however the city should not put those rules into effect until it is required.
“We should not do this one minute before we are forced to do it,” he said. “The primary issue in front of me here is that this violates federal law, and until that issue is resolved I see no way that we can allow this to happen.”