In a sign of changing times, Pitkin County is about to consider its first application for a sizable greenhouse marijuana-growing facility.
The proposal by Jordan Lewis, who runs a medical marijuana dispensary called Silverpeak Apothecary in Aspen, is to develop a 4.7-acre lot roughly 1.5 miles southeast of Basalt (and some 16 miles northwest of Aspen) with a series of greenhouses. The operation is designed to supply Lewis’ existing retail outlet and potentially others within the valley, also owned by Lewis, depending on how the business unfolds.
If he receives his approvals, Lewis will erect greenhouses in phases, as needed, up to an eventual total of 55,000 to 59,000 square feet. That square footage requires special permission from the county, called “flexibility for agricultural support.” The Board of County Commissioners is scheduled to consider the matter Aug. 28.
The site, presently owned by Jimmie and Jesse Caparrella, is unique in the county in that it fits Lewis’ budget and has water and utilities as well as the right solar and topographic characteristics for his unique agricultural project.
“We need good light exposure,” he said. “There are really not that many spots in the county where you have good light morning through evening. It’s also a flat piece of land.”
Though Lewis intends to grow marijuana, the M-word is not mentioned in his application to the county. And Lance Clarke, assistant director of the county’s Community Development Department, said the county is approaching the application like any other agricultural operation.
“This is the only application we have for a large greenhouse in Pitkin County,” Clarke said. “But there’s no assurance, if the approval is granted, that this will forever be for marijuana or that if it starts out as a marijuana-growing facility that it will stay that way.”
The fact of the marijuana does make the application unusual, and so does the size of the proposed development.
“We’ve never had anybody ask for this amount of flexibility for agricultural support,” Clarke said.
At this point, Clarke has fielded “a handful of inquiries” about new marijuana-growing facilities, but Lewis’ application is the only one of its kind.
The idea of a legal, licensed, regulated and taxed marijuana farm is the result of a long series of cultural and political changes that started in November 2000, when Colorado voters approved Amendment 20. That measure legalized the establishment of medical marijuana dispensaries such as Lewis’, which can sell limited amounts of pot and pot-infused products to certified patients with written medical consent.
But the Centennial State made an even larger political splash when, in November, voters approved Amendment 64 to legalize the possession and sale of recreational marijuana. The statewide margin of victory was roughly 55-45, but the Pitkin County electorate supported the measure 75-25. Anticipating more demand, entrepreneurs such as Lewis began planning to ramp up production. Local governments such as Pitkin County, however, are still contemplating how they wish to regulate the sale, production, packaging and processing of the substance within their borders.
Local decisions about licensing and regulation are complicated by the fact that marijuana remains illegal in the eyes of the federal government. To date, federal authorities have taken a mostly hands-off approach to the growing industry in Colorado, but the conflict between state and federal law remains a source of tension and uncertainty.
Lewis is excited about the possibilities for his new venture, but he’s also keenly aware of his place on the leading edge of a social, cultural and economic shift.
“I’m actually very proud to be in this position, but it’s not always such a comfortable position to be in,” he said. “I really just can’t wait for the day when all the obstacles have been eliminated and it’s just a matter of executing on a vision.”
At the moment, the main obstacles on his mind are local government approvals. The Basalt Planning and Zoning Commission, serving as an advisory panel to the Pitkin Board of County Commissioners, reviewed Lewis’ application on July 16 and supported it, 5-0. That favorable recommendation was not a foregone conclusion; town staff members had recommended denial based on the size of the proposed greenhouse development, but the planning commissioners disagreed.
“The staff felt that 55,000 feet at buildout, if he were to build all six greenhouses, was of urban, downtown size,” said commission Chairman Bernie Grauer, adding that the recommendation “was not a moral or legal thing about marijuana in this country.”
Grauer and the rest of the commission looked around the neighborhood, however, and decided the area was already peppered with large buildings, including the Roaring Fork Club administrative center and the Holland Hills Business Center.
“This development is right on Highway 82, and there are quite a few non-rural land uses already approved right there,” Grauer said. “We found that it meets our land-use requirements.”
Lewis is presently producing all the marijuana for his retail shop at an indoor growing facility in La Plata County. Switching to a naturally lit greenhouse complex is an attempt to step up production and to be more energy efficient. Lewis said the farm will be green, low-impact, well-kept and appropriate to the neighborhood. He also emphasized the economic benefits.
“I want a resident manager living there, both for safety and to keep an eye on the crop,” Lewis said. “Everything will literally be grown within 30 miles of where it’s sold. I’ll employ 30 people locally if we can do this.”
After four years in the medical marijuana business, Lewis has earned a kind of “pole position” in the state’s recently established process to obtain recreational marijuana licenses. He and other approved medical marijuana sellers stand to receive recreational marijuana licenses as of Jan. 1, whereas new entrants into the marijuana business won’t be licensed before Oct. 1, 2014.
If Lewis receives the necessary land-use permits, he will still need to pursue a marijuana-growing license through both the county and the state.
“I feel like I can represent the industry well, and I think I can make the people of Pitkin County proud,” he said. “I’m raising a family here, and it’s very important to me on a very simple level to feel accepted in the community.”