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Sunnyside drags its heels on pot sales decision

Sunnyside lawyer Alex Newhouse (L) and David Rand, who is working with the Liquor Control Board to be granted a license to open a retail recreational marijuana shop in Sunnyside, listen as the council debates renewing a moratorium on allowing such businesses in town.

Photo by Laura Gjovaag.
Sunnyside lawyer Alex Newhouse (L) and David Rand, who is working with the Liquor Control Board to be granted a license to open a retail recreational marijuana shop in Sunnyside, listen as the council debates renewing a moratorium on allowing such businesses in town.

The Sunnyside City Council is likely to delay for another six months its decision on whether or not to allow a retail recreational marijuana business in town. A public hearing on Monday, Aug. 11, will precede the council’s decision to renew the existing moratorium on allowing such business ventures.

Last night council heard from four members of the public regarding the issue and later discussed what City Manager Don Day called the city’s four options: to do nothing, to enact a ban, to adopt the planning commission’s recommendations to allow such businesses or to renew the moratorium for another six months.

However, the city’s existing moratorium, which expires on Aug. 11, was also brought into question at Monday’s meeting by both Sunnyside attorney Alex Newhouse and Councilwoman Theresa Hancock, who said she contacted lawyers at the Municipal Research and Services Center for advice on the issue.

At issue is whether the city followed the rules set down for a moratorium in Washington state. Newhouse and lawyers from the Municipal Research and Services Center contend that the city was required to hold another public hearing after deciding to extend its original six-month moratorium to a one-year moratorium.

Sunnyside attorney Eric Ferguson stated that he believes the city is in compliance with the law. Mayor Jim Restucci also argued that the city followed the law, noting that the wording of the law allows for an initial moratorium to be in effect for up to a year if a work plan is developed.

Hancock noted her concern on the record, stating that she was not certain that the city actually has a moratorium in effect due to the conflict between what the Municipal Research and Services Center told her and what Ferguson reported.

Also speaking to council on the issue was Adam Markus, owner of Station 420 in Union Gap, who discussed how his business has progressed in the 20 days he’s been open. He said the average age of his customers is far higher than he expected, with the majority being about 40 years old.

Markus also noted that he’s had customers from around the United States and the world, which has brought in tourists to the area. Many of his clients, he said, ask for advice on local wineries and other businesses to visit while in town.

David Rand, the potential owner of Sunnyside’s retail marijuana shop, described the process he’s gone through to build his store, including following strict requirements by the Liquor Control Board in order to be granted a license. He said he has been patronizing local businesses in setting up his store despite higher costs, in order to support the local economy.

Rand also noted that the 24 stores in the state currently selling marijuana have already generated more than $1.8 million in sales, with more than $450,000 in tax revenue going to cities.

LaDon Linde of Sunnyside spoke to express concern that a marijuana shop is already being built in Sunnyside before the council has approved it.

The council discussed the options, with Hancock leaning toward taking action immediately. Councilman Francisco Guerrero argued that not allowing the sale of marijuana in the city leaves all such sales to the illegal market, and also urged action.

Councilman Jason Raines asked if issuing a business license could put city staff in jeopardy of being convicted of a crime under federal law. Ferguson said that it’s possible, but unlikely to reach that level.

Councilman Dean Broersma said that the city does not want to be a test case. He noted that the original moratorium was put in place to see what the courts and legislature decide on the issue. But although a test case that matches Sunnyside’s position has been filed, it has not gone through the courts yet. In addition, the legislature has provided no guidance to cities.

“Whatever we end up doing, I want to do it right,” said Broersma.

Restucci told the council that he cannot support a ban, as that is against the will of the people. He said the council exists due to state law, and should be following state law. But, he noted that approving the planning commission’s recommendation to allow such a business would open up the city to a lawsuit, as Rand has located his potential business in an excluded zone.

Retucci also said the council cannot do nothing, because that will mean the city loses control. He said he supports renewing the moratorium for another six months.

He received support for that proposal from all the other council members present except Hancock, who stated that she is concerned that the city has not developed the work plan required by law. Restucci then listed the items on the work plan point by point to show that progress has been made on it.

The council voted 6-0 with one member absent to hold a public hearing on Monday, Aug. 11, in anticipation of renewing the city’s moratorium on recreational marijuana for another six months.

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