Summit County town struggles to regulate private marijuana grows
A new Blue River ordinance meant to quell dangerous in-home marijuana grows highlights the gaps, both intentional and unintentional, in Colorado’s ever-changing pot laws.
In response to several odor complaints over the past 12 months, the town board of trustees on Tuesday passed an ordinance setting strict limits on where and how marijuana can be grown for personal use.
The most noticeable change touches on a concern for towns across Summit County: Blue River residents can now only grow in a “primary residence,” defined as a “place that a person, by custom and practice, makes his or her principal domicile.” Thanks to the strict definition, grows are banned in secondary structures like sheds.
Before operating a grow, residents are also required to apply for a permit through the town. The permitting process includes a mandatory preliminary inspection by town officials, similar to any other major construction project.
And marijuana grows can be major. Even relatively small, personal operations often require custom ventilation, lighting and irrigation systems to keep the plants happy and healthy during the vegetation cycle, which typically lasts four to six months. In that time, plants need 18 to 24 hours of light daily to take root and begin producing flowers, according to the Denver-based marijuana company Best Buds.
“Marijuana is obviously legal in the state of Colorado and this (ordinance) just gives the town a little more control over how that is done,” said Michelle Eddy, the Blue River town administrator. “When people grow, they are installing vents and changing plumbing and adding new systems on their own without going through a process.”
The new Blue River ordinance applies only to personal grows. The town opted to ban commercial cultivation and sale when marijuana was decriminalized.
Under Amendment 64, any Colorado resident older than 21 years old can grow up to six marijuana plants, with no more than three mature (or budding) plants at any time. Yet the statewide laws don’t touch on the nitty-gritty details of cultivation — say, mandatory ventilation systems, or restrictions on the size of an in-home grow operated by two or more adults. Much like retail dispensaries and cultivation sites, the task of identifying and addressing all aspects of an in-home grow is placed firmly on local governments.
Over the past 12 months, a rash of complaints about marijuana odors and potentially dangerous electrical upgrades in Blue River led Rob Theobald, the town’s building official, to inspect several structures. He found dozens of red flags, most of which he describes as building violations: disruptive odors, “substantial property damage” caused by mold, unsafe electrical systems. He also came across more than one grow in a rental property.
“The ones we’ve had issues with were larger than personal use,” Theobald said. “In at least one case, or more, it was being done in a rental home where the owner wasn’t aware of what was happening.”
CLOSING THE GAP
In a resort community like Summit County, where hundreds of grow-ready properties sit vacant throughout the year, setting strict (and strictly local) limits on marijuana is an unlikely benefit of broad statewide laws.
“We can’t do anything about the fact people can grow for personal use, but this ordinance now has some restrictions in place to make sure people are doing it responsibly,” Eddy said. “It’s to make sure you aren’t a nuisance to your neighbors from the safety end of things.”
The new ordinance brings Blue River in step with Summit County and neighboring towns like Breckenridge, both of which set limits on in-home grows
Again, due to the structure of Colorado’s marijuana laws, individual governments make their own rules: Even though the county has had personal cultivation laws in place since 2013, Blue River has not. That regulatory gap led the town to craft a cultivation ordinance that looks similar to the countywide law, including square-footage limits and a cap of 12 plants per residence, no matter how many adults call it home.
The biggest difference between local cultivation laws is the big, green elephant in the room: Where can grows operate? In Breckenridge and Blue River, residents can only cultivate in a residential unit with prior consent from a landlord, if the unit is a rental. In unincorporated Summit County, such as Summit Cove, grows can operate in a shed or greenhouse, but any operation requires a permit with annual renewals.
The Summit County Sheriff’s Office has fielded a handful of complaints about cultivation over the past 12 months. Like Blue River, the majority involved offensive odors, and like Blue River, the majority of offending residents were willing to follow the rules — after the first warning.
“One word of advice: Hire an electrician,” Sheriff John Minor said. “This is the law, this is allowed, but please, don’t burn your house down. Get a permit and talk to an expert. There are plenty of experts around now who know how to do these grows.”
THE ISSUE WITH OIL
For Minor and other officials across Summit, safety hazards are the most unpredictable and troubling aspect of in-home cultivation.
Silverthorne and Frisco currently don’t have ordinances to limit grows. Frisco has received no complaints about offensive grows, but after recieving odor complaints similar to Blue River, Silverthorne town planners are writing a cultivation law. Staff will present it to the council in the next month or two.
“This is certainly something we’ve identified in our regulations that needs to be fixed,” Silverthorne planning manager Matt Gennett said. “This is about protecting residential neighborhoods and the character of those neighborhoods. We want something very specific that will address this new activity.”
One of the newest blips on the marijuana radar is hash-oil production. Several residential buildings on the Front Range literally exploded when owners made hash oil using n-butane, a highly flammable substance that separates cannabinoids from other organic material.
In Summit, Minor says an explosion outside of Breckenridge in 2009 left two people seriously injured, and nearly 400 empty butane bottles were recently discovered in a recycling bin on County Road 450 east of Breckenridge.
Yet Amendment 64 doesn’t ban private hash-oil production, or at least that’s the argument in a Denver District Court. A Denver man is one of three people charged with manufacturing marijuana concentrate following a warehouse explosion. The man’s attorney argues that the state constitution protect marijuana possession and plant processing, while Colorado attorney general John Suthers says any activity that puts others at risk violates rights granted by the amendment.
While Denver courts wade through legislation, local governments continue filling the gaps in Colorado’s marijuana laws. The Blue River ordinance prohibits any concentrate manufacturing with n-butane or other flammable materials, and the Breckenridge Town Council will hear reports on a similar ban at the Feb. 24 meeting.
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