Basalt-area marijuana farm’s license in peril
July 1, 2016
In a highly charged meeting Tuesday, Pitkin County commissioners told the owners of High Valley Farms, a marijuana grow facility that debuted last year, that its license is in serious peril because of its chronic stench.
The meeting was the latest in a series of county commissioner work sessions over the smell wafting from High Valley Farms, located in the Basalt area. And each time, Jordan Lewis, co-owner of the greenhouses, has assured commissioners and neighbors the stench will be eradicated. The neighbors also have been making repeated claims that the odor hasn't gone away, continually and negatively impacting their lifestyle.
At Tuesday's meeting the Pitkin Board of County Commissioners room overflowed with frustrated Holland Hills residents, Lewis defended his Basalt-area operation and accused the neighbors of engaging in a "mob mentality," and commissioners showed lost confidence that the smell will be arrested.
Near the meeting's end, commissioners said the license is in jeopardy, while Commissioner George Newman called for its immediate suspension, which could not be done at a work session and would require a special hearing.
Instead, on Sept. 23, Lewis will learn the fate of his farm, which furnishes both medical and recreational cannabis products to his Silverpeak Apothecary in Aspen. That's when commissioners will formally meet to decide whether to renew his license, which expires the next day.
If commissioners don't renew the license, they could give High Valley Farms 30 days to wind down its operation.
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"If you have a skunk living under your deck, would you live with it or would you remove it?" Newman said. "I would suggest you remove it. The residents of Holland Hills are asking us to remove it."
When commissioners granted High Valley Farms its agriculture license last year, a condition of the approval was that it would not emit marijuana-type smells. And the county's retail marijuana licensing regulations also state, "All retail marijuana establishments shall be equipped with a proper ventilation system so that odors are filtered and do not materially interfere with the enjoyment of adjoining property."
Commissioner Chair Steve Child apologized to both the neighbors and Lewis for last year's approval.
"I think the county did a disservice in approving what we did approve," he said. "I wish we could have cut the size of the operation in half. If you had two greenhouses (there are four at the farm), you would be in a better position to have less odor and less damage if you didn't get renewed."
Lewis asked the commissioners to "take steps in the meantime to look at this fair and objectively," saying there's "a certain mob mentality" among residents who want to see his farm closed. That drew a chorus of boos, prompting County Manager Jon Peacock to warn one part-time resident — Dr. Ted DeWeese, a professor of radiation oncology and molecular radiation at Johns Hopkins University — to pipe down or leave the meeting.
"Even if we didn't have a single marijuana plant in that facility, we would still be getting complaints," said Lewis, who was emphatic that the smell will be eradicated once a new technology comes online.
Commissioner Rachel Richards, however, along with other commissioners, said Lewis has made those same assurances in the past. Yet the smell has been resilient, despite such odor-supression tactics as a mist droplet system, a dry-air vapor system and odor destruction through ionization. Lewis said the next strategy is to install a hydroxyl unit.
"We have been pressing as hard as humanly possible and we have spared no expenses at all on getting this done," Lewis said.
But commissioners said the residents are bearing the brunt of Lewis' experiments.
"We've extended our goodwill and trust to you, and we've asked (the neighbors) to live with too much when it comes to what those results have been, and we take the blame for that," Richards said.
Richards said the neighbors are living with a "certain anxiety" in their "day-to-day lives that shouldn't exist."
Some residents expressed fear of potential health problems.
"It's affected my health," Nancy Booth said.
"It's not getting any better, and it won't get any better," she said of the smell.
DeWeese said that the greater the odor, the greater levels of THC — the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana — which can pose health problems. The doctor said the situation playing out at High Valley Farms is reminiscent of when people were exposed to high levels of mercury in Chesapeake Bay.
Other residents said a double-standard appears to be in play. Contractor David Lambert said he had been red-tagged twice by the county because his business created dust, which resulted in complaints. But the county hasn't taken any punitive action against High Valley Farms, he said.
Another neighbor, Chris Cox, said: "To me, this is pollution going into our air. If it was a company sending pollution into the river, it would be shut down. If it was noise, it would be shut down."
Residents said the smell gets in their hair and clothes. Some said they can't go outside to barbecue food because the smell reeks so bad. Others said they have to shut their windows during the heat of the summer.
To his defense, Lewis said he knows of at least five legal or illegal grow operations in the area. Legal ones could be caregivers growing medical cannabis.
"Holland Hills has five grows in that neighborhood," he said. "There is also illegal manufacturing in Basalt. These things exist. There's not just a few of them, there's a lot of them."
He added: "A lot of the complaints have come during the nighttime. At night our ventilation system is running at an absolute minimum. … At a certain point we all have to acknowledge that there are other factors."
Commissioner Patti Clapper called for the county to investigate other legal and illegal grows near Highway 82, "because you can smell it all the way from Emma to Aspen Village on some days."
The county launched its own probe into the smells coming from High Valley Farms starting June 9, when Environmental Health Manager Kurt Dahl began to monitor the smell. He recorded faint, moderate, strong or very strong odors on 19 different occasions from June 11 through July 31.
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