With perhaps thousands of illegal medical marijuana grows in rural residential zones, Jackson County is considering whether to designate them a nuisance — a move that could trigger enforcement action against growers.
The county adopted marijuana regulations in March 2016 that, coupled with a change in state law, made growing medical marijuana in rural residential zones illegal. Recreational marijuana grows had already been banned there. Rural residents are allowed to grow four plants for personal use and marijuana can be grown in large quantities on land zoned for agricultural use.
County officials said medical marijuana growers who had already been raising pot in those zones could apply to be grandfathered in by seeking a pre-existing, nonconforming use permit.
But planning staff have been denying the applications, triggering a wave of appeals before county hearings officers.
With the county receiving complaints from neighbors about grows, Development Services Director Kelly Madding recommended the county consider declaring medical marijuana grows on rural residential land a nuisance.
This week, the Jackson County Board of Commissioners directed staff members to research the pros and cons of such a move.
Madding said the county could potentially be flooded with hundreds or thousands of pre-existing nonconforming use permit applications from growers — with the numbers likely in the thousands.
Marijuana proponents have estimated there are thousands of grows in Jackson County, although not all are on rural residential land.
The county has 816,000 acres that would continue to be legal for grows, including exclusive farm use and forest zones, Madding said.
The county has 43,000 acres of rural residential land. Many of those properties are relatively small — about two acres — meaning many people are living in close proximity to marijuana grows, she said.
"It's not unreasonable for people to have a place to live out in the country in Jackson County where they don't have to live next to marijuana," Madding said.
She said people have complained they have to move away because of nearby grows.
"I hear from people, 'We're moving and our property is worth less because people don't want to live next to a grow,' " Madding said.
Neighbors have complained about skunk-like odors from marijuana plants, noise, traffic, aggressive guard dogs, gun-toting growers, strangers coming and going, wells running dry and other problems.
Madding said people who don't want to live near marijuana are being pushed out of the countryside into cities that don't allow marijuana grows within their boundaries.
If grows on rural residential land were declared nuisances, the county could take code enforcement action after receiving complaints. Grows would be treated like other nuisances, such as accumulated garbage and debris.
County Counsel Joel Benton said a drawback of calling a grow a nuisance could be that a land owner might argue the county has reduced the value of the property. Landowners could say they should be compensated by the county for that lost value.
Benton said the situation could raise a complex legal question. Is eliminating someone's right to grow medical marijuana — which remains illegal under federal law — a "taking" of their property value that requires compensation?