Seattle Set to Change Land Use Rules to Allow for More Marijuana Retail Stores

Yes, Dorothy, the Emerald City is opening up some of the cannabis zoning rules, but is it really just an illusion?
Yes, Dorothy, the Emerald City is opening up some of the cannabis zoning rules, but is it really just an illusion?

With passage of SB 5052, the old medical marijuana collective garden model will be over and done with by July 1, 2016 in Washington State. This means that all of the collective garden “access points,” a/k/a dispensaries, will be shuttered by this coming summer if not sooner. SB 5052 ensures that Washington’s medical marijuana system becomes one with its I-502 recreational marijuana system.

To accommodate the transition into what will be essentially a combined recreational-medical marijuana system, the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board re-opened the retail license application process and lifted the statewide retail license cap, and it is trying to license as quickly as possible those MMJ access points with Priority 1 licensure status under the new state laws and regulations.

This year the Washington State legislature also passed HB 2136, an I-502 “technical fix bill.” Among other things, HB 2136 allows cities and counties to reduce the 1,000-foot buffer rule to as low as a 100-foot buffer from state-mandated sensitive uses, with the sole exception of schools and playgrounds.

Most cities have not taken advantage of the buffer reduction option. However, the City of Seattle is working on changing its land use rules through its “Marijuana Amendments Ordinance” so as to allow for more marijuana retail storefronts in the city. This makes sense since Seattle still has over 100 operating MMJ access points and delivery services and if at least some of those cannabis businesses are not accommodated, they will disappear.

According to the Seattle Mayor’s office, the new land use rules “would . . . allow the siting of state-licensed stores more equitably and fairly throughout Seattle while also limiting the possibility of clustering retail stores on a single city block.” The new ordinance provides as follows:

[T]he 1,000-foot restriction from playgrounds and schools would remain in effect while restrictions for all other public amenities would be reduced to 500 feet (approximately 1-2 city blocks). The new rule would establish an additional 1,650 acres for retail locations to be sited in Seattle.

In addition, retailers must locate at least 500 feet from each other. The ordinance also creates odor standards for producers and processors engaged in “Major Marijuana Activity,” which entails the city working with the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency to determine for each producer and processor what steps need to be taken to reduce odor emission and pollutants. The ordinance defines “Major Marijuana Activity” to encompass all selling, producing, and processing of marijuana, which is a change from Seattle’s old marijuana laws that based the definition on plant count and ounce limitations as set forth in RCW 69.51A.085.

Regarding zones in which marijuana businesses can locate, the proposed ordinance keeps pace with Seattle’s old marijuana zoning ordinance in that major marijuana activity is still prohibited in the following zones:

Single-family zones; Multifamily zones; Neighborhood Commercial 1 (NC1) zones; Pioneer Square Mixed (PSM); International District Mixed (IDM); International District Residential (IDR); Downtown Harborfront 1 (DH1); Downtown Harborfront 2 (DH2); Pike Market Mixed (PMM); Ballard Avenue Landmark District; Columbia City Landmark District; Fort Lawton Landmark District; Harvard-Belmont Landmark District; International Special Review District; Pike Place Market Historical District; Pioneer Square Preservation District; Sand Point Overlay District; and Stadium Transition Area Overlay District.

Should the city of Seattle pass this new Ordinance (and we believe that it will), the race will be on for potential retailers to find viable property within relatively limited zoning that meets even the new 500 foot buffer requirements. This already has some industry stakeholders in a fit either because their existing spaces will not qualify even under the new, more liberal buffer rules, or simply because finding space in this city has become impossibly difficult and expensive. In addition, for reasons we’ve previously written about, none of this means that Seattle landlords are ready and willing to lease their spaces to marijuana businesses. So, though the reduction of state buffers is undoubtedly positive to provide greater access to marijuana, it’s way easier said than done when it comes to actualization, particularly in the Emerald City.