(Photo by Tom Gilchrist) Caro Fire Chief Randall Heckroth, left, prepares to tell the Juniata Township Planning Commission that the number of people inside the Juniata Township Hall wasn’t over the hall’s capacity during the planning commission’s Monday meeting. Heckroth announced he arrived at the hall in response to a complaint about the hall holding more than its capacity of 45 people. He said he counted a total of 45 people in the township hall meeting room and a back room that’s adjacent to the meeting room.

Proposed Juniata Twp. outdoor pot farms take a hit

WATROUSVILLE – Juniata Township residents didn’t think much on Monday of a proposal to allow outdoor commercial medical-marijuana farms – up to 20 times larger than the outdoor pot “pens” where medical-marijuana “caregivers” have grown the plants for years. Juniata Township Planning Commission members outlined language proposed to be added to a township ordinance governing commercial medical-marijuana facilities. The proposal requires two fences, and other security measures, around any outdoor commercial grow operation that could be licensed under a 2016 state law.

“I don’t think they ought to do it outside, period,” Andy Perez told the planning commission. “I just don’t think there’s an adequate way to provide security for something like that outside.”

Several other township residents also voiced opposition to allowing the outdoor grow operations, and the planning commission took a straw vote that saw about 28 people in the audience declare their opposition to commercial outdoor marijuana-growing facilities.

One person, Matt Stoick of Reese – who has obtained a special-land use permit to operate an indoor commercial medical-marijuana facility for up to 500 plants in Juniata Township – raised his hand in support of commercial outdoor grow businesses.

Stoick declined to specify the location of his planned indoor commercial marijuana-growing facility, but acknowledged the opposition to commercial outdoor-growing facilities after Monday’s planning commission meeting.

“It’s not going to happen here, I don’t think,” Stoick said. “I’m going to go back to what I was planning originally, which was doing it indoors.”

The township already has approved an ordinance allowing up to 15 commercial medical-marijuana-growing facilities – but with a stipulation that the marijuana must be grown inside buildings. The ordinance sets a maximum of five facilities with up to 500 plants, five facilities allowing up to 1,000 plants and five facilities with a maximum of 1,500 plants.

The township planning commission plans a public hearing at 7 p.m. on Sept. 17 to consider proposed changes and clarifications to the ordinance, along with an amendment allowing marijuana to be grown outdoors at such facilities provided they’re located in areas zoned for agriculture and that the operations meet other requirements.

Outsiders on way?

The planning commission would make a recommendation to the Juniata Township Board of Trustees regarding approval or denial of any language changes or additions to the ordinance. One member of the board of trustees, Trustee Brenda Wachner, sat in the audience of about 42 people attending Monday’s series of public hearings scheduled to discuss wording changes to several ordinances, and the repeal of two other ordinances.

Though planning commission members postponed a public hearing on changes to the commercial medical-marijuana growing ordinance – including language allowing such facilities to grow the plants outdoors – Wachner and others addressed the topic.

“This is all new to us, and down the line there is going to be so much more to this,” Wachner said. “We’re going to have people from other countries coming in and buying our permits, and selling here. It’s going to be bigger than we ever imagined, and to be safe and to start small, I feel that if we keep it inside, and start small, and not (allow) outside growing, I think that’s the best way to go.”

Juniata Township Planning Commission Secretary Ione Vyse told Wachner that “In order to grow marijuana in our township, every single one of these folks has to have a special land use permit; in order to have a special land use permit, you’ve got to have some land.”

“It’s not anything for the cartel to come here and buy every open piece of land that they have, because they’re already doing this in Colorado,” Wachner responded.

“If they want to buy the land and if they can get a permit … then they’re Juniata (Township) folks,” Vyse answered. “Just like those people who came from Saginaw or Detroit or wherever and bought an acre of land. They’re Juniata folks now. We’re all in it together.”

“No, they’re not all in it together,” Wachner replied. “Sorry. We’re not all in it together.”

Applicants for a permit to run a commercial medical-marijuana-growing operation outdoors also must have received a permit for a commercial indoor-growing operation, according to language proposed to be added to the township ordinance.

“The outdoor facility and the indoor facility shall be adjacent, and on the same property,” Vyse stated. “They can’t have one here and then one down the road a ways.”

Security cameras and alarms, operating and monitored for 24 hours, every day, “shall be installed on all sides of the outdoor growing area,” said Vyse, reading from language proposed to be added to the ordinance.

A “solid interior fence” of metal or wood, at least eight feet high and not allowing light to penetrate through it, shall be built around the outdoor-growing operation, according to proposed language. A second fence at least eight feet high, with “climb-over impediments,” shall surround the growing area at least 10 feet from the interior fence.

“Who will regulate these? Who’s going to come and oversee that they’re doing (things legally)?” Barbara Ruckle asked planning commission members from the audience.

“There will be regular state inspections,” Vyse replied. “If you read the state ordinance, it describes them.”

‘Stuck with’ caregivers

The state Medical Marihuana Facilities Licensing Act, passed in 2016, allows municipalities – including townships – to license and regulate up to five types of medical-marijuana businesses: growers, processors, secure transporters, safety compliance facilities and provisioning centers, which are marijuana stores.

Juniata Township’s existing ordinance allows growers, safety-compliance facilities and secure transporters, but not marijuana processors or stores.

The 2016 state law has no effect on medical-marijuana “caregivers” allowed – under a 2008 state law – to grow up to 72 marijuana plants (including 12 plants each for five patients) in a secure location, including a caregiver’s home.

State statistics from December of last year showed 478 caregivers in Tuscola County, with many growing up to 72 plants outdoors hidden behind wooden fences in what some county residents describe as pot “pens.”

“The guys out there that are the providers and the caregivers and all that, the state doesn’t handle anything with ’em, so we’re stuck with ’em,” Vyse said.

Under the 2016 state law, Juniata Township has issued special-land use permits to two people – one of whom is Matt Stoick – for growing medical marijuana indoors at commercial facilities that are much larger than the 72-plant pot pens, according to township officials. The two individuals still must receive township permits in addition to meeting state requirements, officials said.

Juniata Township Clerk Heidi Stark, who also is a member of the planning commission, told the audience on Monday why the township chose to propose an amendment that would allow outdoor marijuana growing at the larger, commercial facilities.

“One, we had a request by one of the individuals that has a (special land-use) permit,” Stark said. “Two, the state law changed to allow it. There is a series of special laws that allow (outdoor growing), so he was asking under that extension of the law, which was not something that we considered the first time around because it wasn’t legal.”

Prior to the start of public hearings regarding several township ordinances on Monday, a dispute arose about whether the number of people inside the township hall was exceeding its legal capacity.

A woman in the audience contended there were “47 or 48” people inside the building and thus putting the building above its 45-person capacity, though Vyse disagreed, counting 43 inside. When several audience members contested Vyse’s count, Vyse said the planning commission could “reconvene in the yard” outside the building at 1971 S. Ringle Road.

A man in the audience asked why there weren’t 45 chairs for 45 people, with several audience members standing inside the hall meeting room or in a back room off the meeting room.

Stark told the other planning commission members they could adjourn the meeting “if standing room is not acceptable,” though the planning commission continued on with several public hearings and didn’t move the hearings outdoors. Minutes later, though, an audience member declared she would call fire department officials if the alleged overcrowding wasn’t addressed, and later in the evening, Caro Fire Chief Randall Heckroth walked into the township hall meeting room with a notepad.

Heckroth said he came in response to a complaint he received about the number of people exceeding the 45-person legal capacity. He said he counted 45 people inside the building, and took no further action.

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