Commission delays decision on controversial marijuana/hemp facility
Packed into a room in the basement of the Yamhill County courthouse, Newberg residents and their allies gathered en masse on Jan. 9 to voice their concerns to the Board of Commissioners about a proposed marijuana and hemp processing facility on Chehalem Mountain that was approved by the county planning commission in December and later appealed by neighbors.
The appeal hearing allowed the appellants – Laura Cochran and Jill Anderson – to provide their side of the story with help from Cochran's counsel, Portland attorney Jeffrey Kleinman.
The hearing began with a bit of drama as Kleinman approached the commission and demanded chairman Casey Kulla recuse himself due to what Kleinman characterized as conflicts of interest. In addition to their organic farm on Grand Island, Kulla and his wife operate Walnut Rise, a cannabis farm.
Kulla did not recuse himself and – after denying the claims of bias – made a concerted effort throughout the hearing to acknowledge and question speakers on both sides of the argument, turning first to the applicants in the matter.
Applicant Christopher Bryan of OreTex Farms and Portland-based lawyer Corinne Celko provided their defense of the site's processing facility, expressing their collective indignance over the public's misgivings and defending the company's adherence to lawful application and trade practices.
"I spent the last several years working with various people in the community to make this dream of becoming a small business owner a reality," Bryan told commissioners. "The incorrect comments and allegations asserted by my opposition are quite frustrating given the lengths that I have gone through. I am committed to running a first-class business, which is compliant with all laws and regulations."
Celko echoed her client's sentiments and spoke at length about the rules and regulations that she believes OreTex and its partners are following. The land is zoned for exclusive farm use and county officials OK'd the processing facility more than a month ago under 19 conditions of approval.
County planning director Ken Friday and his colleagues on staff provided myriad examples of what is and isn't lawful regarding marijuana and hemp facilities. A point of contention was the legality of such a facility on land zoned for farming, because neighbors believe the facility is more industrial than agricultural.
"Marijuana may not be done as a commercial activity in conjunction with farm use," Friday explained. "Processing of one's own product may be done on site provided at least a quarter of the crops are grown on site and the facility is less than 10,000 square feet."
Celko said the application "meets all the standards" of site design review and that her client made an effort to research odor and noise concerns on behalf of concerned neighbors.
"We didn't have to do that, but we wanted to do that," Celko said. "What the reports (from our experts) show is that even having the cumulative effects of both the production side and the processing…. the facility as a whole would comply with the DEQ nighttime noise regulations and – even though there's no odor regulations implemented by Yamhill County – the odor control system that the applicants would utilize … will effectively control odor so that it will not impact or be smelled by neighbors…"
Neighbors push back
Chehalem Mountain residents argue the facility is going to cause serious harm and inconvenience to them with the sounds, smells, traffic and other risks associated with a marijuana and hemp operation. The two appellants were joined by dozens of fellow Chehalem Mountain residents who were united in vocal opposition to the facility.
Cochran's testimony was at the heart of the opponents' argument. She owns the closest property to the site with a home just north of where operations will be taking place. She said her disabled adult son, Sean, is being negatively impacted by the facility already as his bedroom is 37 feet from the property line.
With the facility already undertaking some of its operations in leftover buildings from previous tenants, the noise is already causing issues for Sean, his mother said. When past tenants of the facility engaged in illegal activities and harassment, discharged firearms and filled the air with noise and pungent odor, it caused significant issues for the severely autistic man and his family members.
"Stuck inside during previous processing, Sean basically had a mental breakdown," Cochran said. "He scraped the paint and the sheet rock off the walls in our home. He harmed himself and those taking care of him and he started smashing his head into walls."
Cochran and Anderson said they are concerned about the sounds and smells, but also the potential for the chemicals used when cannabis is processed could cause an explosion. A fire caused by such an explosion – they added – would devastate those living on Chehalem Mountain and potentially cause injuries and deaths.
Other neighbors raised issues of traffic concerns with the facility trucking water and other supplies in and out at all hours of the day. Potential accidents at dicey intersections were brought up as a risk, as were the loud noises emitted by trucks backing up into the facility.
In all, the facility is drawing plenty of ire from residents. Nearly all of the people in attendance who chose to spoke were vehemently opposed to its construction at atop Chehalem Mountain – a place that many argued isn't practical or safe for a company that grows and processes marijuana.
Cochran's primary concern, she said, is the safety and well-being of her son. She has been fighting with the county for years as the facility near her home has changed hands, and she expressed her tearful exasperation with the struggles these facilities – some legal and some not – have caused her son.
She added she is concerned for her neighbors, too, who have rallied behind her in this situation.
"There is no other farm in my neighborhood that sickens neighbors, stops breathing, sends people to the emergency room, glues eyes shut, makes children and grandchildren housebound," Cochran said. "No other farm crop is illegal to sell within a thousand feet of a school. It's a chemical refinery that creates industrial noise 24 hours a day."
After more than five hours of discussion and testimony – much of it emotional and at times contentious – commissioners decided to give themselves another week to mull things over. Kulla said the commissioners needed time to examine all the materials submitted for the record, reflect on written and spoken testimony, and come to a clear decision.
Commissioners can either uphold the planning commission's decision to approve the processing facility, or they can overturn it – putting the future of that portion of the site in question. OreTex and its partners have already begun working with hemp on the site and are pursuing an OLCC license for the marijuana portion of their operation – which will include the production and processing of the plant.
Commissioners will next meet at 10 a.m. Thursday in Room 32 of the county courthouse.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story named Linda Sandberg as the second appellant in this matter. The story has been corrected to reflect that it is not Sandberg, but instead nieghbor Jill Anderson.
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