N. Bonneville explores operating pot store

Mayor says city has vested interest to make sure it is run properly

By Erin Middlewood, Columbian special projects reporter

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The Columbia River Gorge, a hub for hiking and windsurfing, may become a destination for another kind of recreation.

North Bonneville, a city of about 1,000 residents in Skamania County, is toying with the idea of opening its own marijuana retail store under Initiative 502.

The measure, approved by voters in November 2012, allows Washington residents 21 and older to possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana. The state Liquor Control Board is in charge of adopting rules and issuing licenses for growing, processing and selling the drug.

While many local governments, including Vancouver and Clark County, have adopted moratoria on marijuana stores so they can figure out zoning and other restrictions, some North Bonneville officials believe that just delays the inevitable.

"Marijuana is coming into Washington state and our communities whether we like it or not," said John Spencer, a consultant for North Bonneville. "If we run the store, then we can control its impact on the health and well-being of our community."

Spencer worked on a short-term contract with the city to study the possibility of a municipally operated pot store. At a Tuesday meeting, the city council did not extend the contract, but did not it quash the idea of pursuing a store.

"It's still under discussion. No decisions have been made," Mayor Don Stevens said. "We're trying to be proactive and look at our options to stay in the driver's seat, instead of watching it all unfold."

The liquor control board capped the number of pot shops statewide at 334, with two stores in Skamania County. Clark County can have as many as 15, as many as six in Vancouver.

The liquor control board expects to adopt rules governing marijuana operations on Oct. 16. The state will take applications for licenses between Nov. 18 and Dec. 17, said Brian Smith, a spokesman for the board.

"There are small windows to apply for the licenses," Stevens said. Adopting a moratorium, as other local governments have done, would mean missing that window.

"That makes it more likely that operations will end up in the hands of somebody else," he said. "Maybe it would be a local resident, but who's to say it's not going to be some guy from Jersey."

Cornering the market?

Indeed, many have expressed interest in marijuana operations in Southwest Washington. A Nov. 1 workshop in Vancouver for those who plan to apply for licenses to become marijuana producers, processors or retailers is almost full. The workshop has room for 200, and 183 of those spots had been snapped up as of Monday, Smith said.

Marijuana will be big business, according to a liquor control board white paper. A retail store could gross $3.875 million annually, the report estimates.

North Bonneville may be in a position to corner the market in Southwest Washington. Given the requirement that pot businesses be at least 1,000 feet from schools, playgrounds, recreation centers, child care centers, public parks, transit centers, libraries and arcades, siting them in urban areas could be tricky.

Not so in rural Skamania County.

The city of North Bonneville owns a few pieces of property along Highway 14 that would meet the siting requirements, Stevens said.

"This is all very preliminary, but our thumbnail sketch would be to build a building for this purpose, on a city-owned property within city limits," Stevens said.

If North Bonneville pursues a pot store, it would do so through a public development authority, a government-owned corporation like the one that operates Pike Place Market in Seattle.

The hitch: The liquor control board's rules don't explicitly say that a municipal entity could hold a license for a pot establishment. And if there's more qualified applicants than available licenses, a lottery will decide who receives them.

Stevens wrote an Oct. 4 email to the liquor control board arguing that municipal applicants should get priority.

The board's Smith said it's unclear if municipalities are even eligible for licenses given that the liquor control board asks them to review license applications, a potential conflict.

But Stevens maintains that cities have a vested interest in well-run marijuana stores.

"Unlike private enterprise, a municipal applicant has strong policy reasons to further the public safety and health goals of I-502," he wrote. "It also has an ongoing relationship with law enforcement and will direct resources to ensure customers lawfully comply with the new statutes."