Consider marijuana grow permit carefully

January 1, 2016

Officials in Rochester are wise to take their time in their consideration of the first medical marijuana grow facility that may soon be authorized to operate in the city.

Rochester businessman Mark Finley has proposed leasing a 320-square-foot space above his current business operation on South Street to start a 72-plant grow operation. If approved, Finley could be the first authorized grow operation in the city, a move we feel could serve as an example for future business models.

Michigan voters in 2008 approved a state law legalizing the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. The law also allows the state to license caregivers, who may grow up to 72 marijuana plants for authorized patients. Since then, both the state legislature and local municipalities have been struggling to find ways to regulate the proliferation of caregiver growing facilities. Rochester, through its 2014 medical marijuana grow operation ordinance, has effectively removed the profitability from the caregiver business, and kept such facilities out of the city. 

Growers seeking to operate in Rochester must first receive site plan approval of their proposed facility, as well as a special exemption from the city's planning commission, a process that Finley is currently pursuing. However, the true stumbling blocks for growers looking at Rochester are the city's financial requirements, which include a non-refundable application inspection fee of $750, as well as a $6,500 deposit that must be held by the city for inspections, processing and oversight for the entire time the facility is in operation. If the grow operation doesn't receive approval, the deposit is refunded. However, licensees who are approved must maintain that deposit through the life of the operation.

As Rochester Economic Development Director Nik Banda explained, the city receives dozens of inquiries from medical marijuana growers each week, but none have yet to follow through because of the stringent financial requirements.

Finley, however, has no misgivings about the financial return on his proposed endeavor. He expects none. Instead, he hopes to make a statement about the validity of medical marijuana use, something he said he has witnessed firsthand among close friends. Citing a friend who suffers from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and another with a father battling cancer, Finley said he believes in the use of medical marijuana under state law. If he follows through, it's a statement he expects will cost about $10,000, just for the licensing aspect from the city. "There's no way I'm going to break even financially," he told planning commissioners.

In terms of motives, the city, through Banda's own statements, is inclined to take Finley at face value. But Finley's motives are really irrelevant to the ordinance and his compliance. And that must be the only issues the city should concern itself with.

Given the almost unchecked growth of medical marijuana cultivation operations in the county, the first one in any city will likely lead to others. For that reason, we believe the city should take note of any potential issues during the process, and adjust its ordinance accordingly to ensure a smooth and consistent process in the future.

Currently, those wishing to establish a grow operation in the city must gain site plan approval and special exception use, have a facility that is at least 500 feet away from schools, parks, childcare facilities, and be within an area zoned as an industrial district. After receiving permission from the planning commission, applicants must also apply for a license from the city, which must then be approved by city council.

While Finley has yet to come before the planning commission for a public hearing, which is tabled until February, let alone the process of licensing by the city and state, planning commissioners have already questioned potential security issues with Finley's location, as it is located in a multi-tenant building. While questions regarding inside and outside security systems are included in the city's medical marijuana grow operation license application, it would be wise to include security issues and requirements in the city's zoning and/or licensing ordinance. 

Considering this is the first serious applicant the city has had, it provides the city with an opportunity to identify and iron out any wrinkles in the ordinance which may become problematic in the future. It also ensures consistency in the future to growers seeking to operate in Rochester.

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