Emma’s great hemp debate has Pitkin County pondering new rules
Suburbanization of the valley creating conflict with farmers
Pitkin County is debating whether to create rules that would allow it to prohibit hemp cultivation if it offends neighbors’ noses.
The county started looking at hemp regulation after an intense lobbying effort by some residents of Emma who were upset by the smells emitted by a five-acre hemp field last year.
In two meetings last week, the county commissioners discussed the need to balance promotion of agriculture with the rights of people to enjoy use of their land.
County commissioner Francie Jacober noted than many people consider hemp to be a “wonder plant” because it has so many beneficial uses — ranging from industrial applications to salves and oils rich in CBDs. She said Pitkin County was heading in an “unusual direction” by targeting hemp when it strives to promote agriculture in so many other ways.
“It seems to me this could be overreach of regulation on our part,” Jacober said.
She also said she feels that people who live in rural areas where farming and ranching is allowed by zoning must be accepting of the odors that come with it.
“If you’ve ever lived next to a cow and calf operation, that’s 12 months of odor,” said Jacober, whose family is in the cattle ranching business. “Hemp is three months of odor.
“I guess it’s a matter of personal preference whether people prefer the odor of manure rather than what they think smells like marijuana,” she continued.
Cultivation of hemp was legalized in Colorado in 2013. Hemp must contain 0.3 percent or less of THC, the psychoactive compound in cannabis. Marijuana has higher levels of THC.
Up to now, hemp cultivation has only been regulated by the state through the Colorado Department of Agriculture. Pitkin County contends it can add oversight through its land use code. The county attorney’s office proposed adding rules which define the zone districts where hemp can be grown and require site-specific approval via a process that would require growers to pay a fee.
The county is considering the regulations through a compressed schedule designed to have rules in place prior to spring planting. It took the rare step of having the county commissioners debate the proposal last week prior to consideration by the Pitkin County Planning and Zoning Commission. The P&Z typically makes an advisory recommendation before the commissioners take up debate of a matter.
At a planning commission meeting this week, county attorney John Ely said there are three hemp cultivation operations in Pitkin County — one in the Crystal Valley and two in the Emma area in the mid-Roaring Fork Valley.
“Two of these sites have proceeded without complaint and one has not,” Ely wrote in a memo to the planning commission. “The site that has generated complaints has been the focus of concern because of its proximity to developed residential property and the odor associated with the crop during almost its entire life cycle.”
Raphael Fasi planted hemp last year on 5 acres of land that his in-laws own on the Pitkin-Eagle county line along Emma Road. He told The Aspen Times last fall that the crop fared amazingly well at the site, despite the high elevation and short growing season. While he was pleased with the results, some of his neighbors decidedly were not. They voiced their objections to the planning commission Tuesday night.
“It ruined, literally ruined, my summer,” said Cathy Markle, an adjacent neighbor.
Markle’s bedroom window was just a few feet away from a corner of the hemp field. She said she was unable to work or relax outdoors on her property without feeling ill and overcome by the odor. She said she grows hay in fields on her property and grows tomatoes and flowers in a greenhouse, so she isn’t against farming. However, a landowner’s right to grow hemp should not supersede a neighbor’s right to enjoy their property, she said.
Another neighbor concurred that conditions were “unbearable” starting in spring because of the odor. The woman said she and her family had to remain inside their home throughout the year. She urged special review that would give neighbors a chance to air their concerns.
“Right now it’s not fair to adjoining owners,” she said.
The Emma Caucus surveyed its membership last year and found that 75 percent of respondents opposed hemp cultivation in their neighborhood, according to Catharine Maas, the caucus secretary.
She said she lives further away from Fasi’s field than Markle, but still found that there was periodically an odor from the hemp through the summer and fall.
“It is not a very consistent effect but it is strong at times,” Maas said.
She urged the county planning commission to adopt regulations that would give it the power to regulate hemp on a site-specific basis.
Pitkin County’s proposed regulations also appear to target Fasi’s operation in a hyper-technical way. The land is split between Pitkin and Eagle County. Pitkin County’s proposed rules would eliminate hemp cultivation as an option because the site doesn’t have 10 acres within Pitkin County.
Fasi said this week he was never informed by Pitkin County that it was considering regulations that could affect his operation. He was working this week to educate himself on the county’s direction.
The two other hemp growers in the county have weighed in on the proposal in meetings over the past two weeks.
David Parker said his family has cultivated hemp on their 100-acre ranch in Emma for five years without complaints. The Parker’s ranch is more isolated than Fasi’s field, with fewer neighbors within sniffing distance.
Parker said he isn’t necessarily opposed to special review for hemp cultivation, but he urged the county not to get too onerous with regulations. It’s hard enough to make a living on a ranch, he said. His family saw hemp as a potentially viable option.
Adam Phillips, who grows hemp in the Parker ranch, told the county commissioners last week that his operation is also isolated enough to avoid conflicts with neighbors. He urged the county to establish a stakeholders group to discuss the proposed regulations so that county officials would have a better understanding of the issues.
Like Parker, he said hemp is a viable alternative for farmers.
“Growing food crops isn’t paying rent on a $5,000 per month house,” Phillips said. “Right now, hemp is back.”
He noted that Pitkin County says it wants to promote and preserve agriculture. He said it will have to decide if it supports viable operations such as hemp cultivation or merely hobby ranchers who “throw water on grass.”
Many second homeowner properties in the county have a token operation, such as a hayfield, so they can get the agricultural exemption on property taxes.
Pitkin County’s direction hemp regulation remains up in the air. The planning commission voted 4-2 Tuesday to recommend denial of the land use code amendments tied to hemp regulation. The majority wasn’t comfortable with the proposed language and wanted a process that provided more protection for farmers.
The county commissioners passed the proposed amendments during a first hearing last week. However, members were clear that thorough debate was necessary in a second reading of the ordinance and a public hearing on March 24.
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