SEQUIM — Tropic Grow LLC, Sequim’s first recreational marijuana grower and producer, could close in the near future.
The business’ owner, Tom Ash, said he is fighting to keep his business running after county officials stopped conducting inspections on his building permits.
Mary Ellen Winborn, Clallam County Department of Community Development director, said inspections could not be done after Tropic Grow’s conditional use permit expired.
Tropic Grow LLC, considered a Tier 2 marijuana producer, received its 502 license from the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board in April 2014 to grow up to about 2,800 marijuana plants inside Ash’s Dungeness barn at 1430 Marine Drive in Sequim.
It was the first business to receive a license to grow recreational marijuana on the North Olympic Peninsula.
“I spent hundreds of thousands of dollars doing this work,” Ash said.
Winborn said the county cannot perform inspections on Ash’s property where he operates his business because he did not complete the application process for his building permits, and because his conditional use permit expired in 2016.
Ash said his building permits weren’t supposed to expire until February 2018 and that he requested inspections for his building permits prior to that expiration date.
Winborn said Ash did not go through the correct process to request inspections and, because his conditional use permit expired in 2016, he no longer can have these inspections performed.
Winborn said Ash did not request an inspection on the building permits until after his conditional use permit expired.
In 2015, Clallam County Commissioners approved local review standards for the placement and development of marijuana uses, such as where recreational marijuana can and cannot be grown, produced and sold in the county.
Before the standards were approved, as long as a business had a conditional use permit and a license from the state, a business could grow or produce marijuana.
After they were approved, businesses could grow, produce and sell marijuana only within those guidelines and in designated areas in the county.
Ash’s property is not in one of the designated areas where marijuana can be grown and produced, according to the county’s ordinance. Because of Ash’s location he can no longer get a conditional use permit to grow and produce marijuana.
“They’ve changed the rules. That’s why they refuse to inspect me, because they forced me out of the conditional use permit, which grandfathered me on this property,” Ash said.
According to Winborn, who was elected department director in 2015, Ash asked only for a final inspection and did not complete his other inspections. But Ash said this is not correct.
“The fact that [the county] states I never requested inspections is not accurate,” Ash said.
He said after he was approved for work on the property, inspections were scheduled and performed but the county stopped performing inspections in 2017. Ash said he was not notified his conditional use permit expired until after the fact.
To make the county aware of his situation, he has had several meetings with Winborn and discussed the matter with County Commissioner Mark Ozias, who was a witness on his behalf at an appeal hearing.
“I didn’t want to spend more money until they were willing to sign off on everything,” Ash said. “It didn’t make any sense to me how this was happening.”
Ash appealed the county’s administrative decision to not extend his building permits and appeared before County Hearing Examiner Andrew Reeves at an appeal hearing April 5 and was later denied April 19.
A portion of Ash’s appeal states, “Condition 15 of the conditional use permit (CUP) clearly stated that the CUP would cease effectiveness if the associated use — a commercial greenhouse for growing and processing marijuana — was ‘not completely developed and operational within three years of the date of issuance.’ ”
It continued to say Ash did not completely develop the proposal or apply for an extension prior to expiration of his conditional use permit Dec. 11, 2016. It also said Winborn did not err in denying Ash’s request to extend his building permits associated with the expired conditional use permit.
Ash said it was not clear to him that he was not requesting inspections in the right way.
Winborn said the proper protocol to request inspections on a building permit is to call a number at the top left corner of the building permit document.
“If you had told me all you had to do is call the 800 number, I would have walked out of the office and called that number,” Ash said.
He said his contractor knows how to request permits and has been doing his job in the area for a long time.
After the hearing examiner denied Ash’s appeal, he appealed again for a request of reconsideration on April 23 — which was denied May 8.
Ash said his next course of action is a “last resort,” taking his case to Clallam County Superior Court, where he said he will seek damages and the right to keep his business operating.
He said before that happens, he is meeting with each county commissioner individually to see if he can have his inspections done one last time before he takes his case to Superior Court.
“If I have to go to Superior Court, I’ll file for my right to do the business. I’ll file for damages because if they put this out of the business that’s a quarter of a million dollars just in costs,” he said.
Ash’s business is still operating and he retains his license to operate from the state.
As far as damages to his business, Ash said he has laid off about four employees and the business is down to just him.
He said he’s already spent $36,000 or more on legal fees and hundreds of thousands of dollars on the engineering, construction and design on the buildings he operates from.
“So where I stand now is I still have a grow because they can’t shut me down because I’m in an appeal process,” Ash said.
“I have to spend everything I have to try and get the right to continue to operate.”
Erin Hawkins is a reporter with the Olympic Peninsula News Group, which is composed of Sound Publishing newspapers Peninsula Daily News, Sequim Gazette and Forks Forum. Reach her at [email protected].