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ND county denies special use for medical pot facility

ST. ANTHONY, N.D.—After prolonged debate, a special use permit for the establishment of a medical marijuana compassion center near St. Anthony was denied by the Morton County Commission on Thursday night, April 12.

The request, made by Brian and Angie McGinness, of Riverbound Farm, was a first for the county, according to Natalie Pierce, Morton County's director of planning and zoning.

Of about 50 people in attendance at Thursday night's meeting, at least half were opposed to the location of the proposed compassion center. A handful of citizens voiced concerns, including the potential for increased crime and traffic to the area, which is home to numerous families with small children, and less-than-ideal emergency personnel response times to the rural setting.

"This truly is a discussion about 'not in my backyard,' and this is in a lot of peoples' backyards," said Kenton Holle, of Northern Lights Dairy, which is located within a mile of the proposed compassion center. "When you start talking about influences on young people and grandkids ... that strikes a nerve in a lot of people."

The McGinnesses own a 38-acre farm where they operate an organic produce subscription service. The couple, who partnered with 35 other small investors to create Little Heart Compassion Center LLC — a separate entity apart from Riverbound Farm — was interested in establishing a medical marijuana growing and processing facility on three acres of the existing farm.

"I had not anticipated that this would be a controversial issue," Brian McGinness said. "I did so much research on this, beforehand, to investigate what the risks may or may not be to put myself at ease about the idea ... this is not a dangerous endeavor."

Addressing safety concerns, Brian McGinness said private around-the-clock security would be hired to complement the state's mandated security measures.

"There's no evidence that a facility like this increases crime or rates of crime in a neighborhood," he said. "Pretty much, crime goes down in the presence of these facilities because there's a security presence in the area."

Zoning in Morton County does allow medical cannabis growing and processing facilities in its agricultural and industrial districts; however, a special use permit is required. The proposed site qualified, as it's zoned agricultural, and no schools, day-care facilities, public parks, public playgrounds or churches are located within the 1,000-foot setback.

Brian McGinness indicated he had taken some of his neighbors' earlier concerns into consideration and moved placement of the proposed operation farther into the property, about 1,000 feet from the road. The facility also would be a hard-sided structure, unlike the hoop houses that originally were proposed.

"One of my neighbors specifically seemed to be upset that it seemed to be closer to his property than it was to our residence," he said. "The reason I had put it, originally, further south was because it was closer to where the water and the power would be and it just made sense."

Cheryl Thomas, a neighbor of the McGinnesses who lives closest to the proposed compassion center, spoke in length as to why the location should be reconsidered.

"We are not against the legalization of marijuana, we are not against the McGinnesses, nor are we against them having an operation," she said. "We, in the community, are in opposition to the location of the proposed operation and growing facility."

There has been an increase in traffic on the community's roads, as well as private driveways, since the McGinnesses started Riverbound Farms, and she fears a medical marijuana facility would create "undue risk," according to Thomas, adding that it is likely that state approval of medical marijuana eventually will lead to recreational uses as well.

"If a crime or emergency situation occurred, private security would still need to call local law enforcement," Thomas said. "This does not take away from the response time it would take emergency personnel to arrive on scene. ... I would suspect that it would take 30 minutes, if not more, for emergency personnel to respond."

Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier was in attendance at the meeting and confirmed it would most likely take 20 minutes for emergency personnel to respond to the rural area.

"I respect the McGinnesses," Jennifer Holle, of Northern Lights Dairy, said. "I'm very behind having your own private rights. When you have private property, you should be allowed to do ... what you want to do, as long as it doesn't affect the environment, the land, your surrounding neighborhood community and all that comes into play."

Jennifer Holle also said she would not support the proposed compassion center because medical marijuana is an illegal drug on the federal level and, in her opinion, "federal is higher than state."

County commissioners discussed the issue prior to the 3-1 vote.

"I have some concerns about the local people. One hundred percent within that mile radius probably don't want it. Where's their rights?" said Commissioner Ron Leingang. "Another thing I'm concerned about is the location ... You really have to have an unlucky crook to have a cop within five minutes."

"I would prefer to see a facility of this type in an industrial area, either in or within the extraterritorial of a city," Chairman Bruce Strinden said. "That's the way the growing facilities are in Minnesota."

Commissioner Andy Zachmeier made the motion to deny the request, noting that medical marijuana is illegal on the federal level and "in cases of conflict between federal law and state law, federal law must be applied. State constitutions are subordinate to the federal law."

Commissioner Cody Schulz cast the dissenting vote, making it known that his decision was based on the wording of the motion.

In 2016, nearly 62 percent of Morton County voters approved a ballot measure in support of medical marijuana by a vote of 9,689 to 5,990.

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