WILLIAMSBURG — Whitewater Township, population 2,799 according to the latest U.S. Census estimate, just passed ordinances allowing up to 300 medical and recreational cannabis growers that would have a combined capacity to grow hundreds of thousands of plants.
But commercial growing operations, and the 10 processors the ordinances also allow, won’t be sprouting up any time soon. First, the township needs to adopt zoning rules determining details like where the businesses can locate, what kind of setbacks they need and so forth, township Supervisor Ron Popp said.
That could take some months to complete, and in the meantime the township can’t approve any permits for the businesses, Popp said.
“Any time a new use is brought into a community, now you have to design the where, the how, the actual particulars of how the regulation is going to work,” he said.
Trustees adopted the ordinances at a recent meeting where dozens of township residents and others interested in the proposed rules spoke up, some in favor and some against. A Michigan State Police trooper briefly interrupted that meeting to ask everyone at the township hall to disperse and hold the meeting virtually in accordance with a Michigan Department of Health and Human Services order — the board moved ahead.
The vote for each was 3-2, with township Clerk Cheryl Goss, Treasurer Della Benak and Trustee Paul Hubbell for, and Popp and Trustee Heidi Vollmuth against. Both Popp and Vollmuth wanted more input but others, like Goss, said they believed the township had received plenty and the ordinances were ready for a vote.
Popp’s request to table both ordinances for six months while the township planning commission conducted a new survey echoed concerns from some township residents that the process to adopt the ordinance was rushed, and flew in the face of public opinion.
Linda Slopsema raised both points, and contrasted it with slower, more measured approaches trustees have taken on prior issues.
“Why exactly does this huge decision need to be rushed without all the facts on the table? What horrible problems are we currently expecting as a result such that we need to prematurely vote right now?” she asked.
Several commenters pointed to the outcome of a 2017 survey where 66 percent out of a few hundred respondents said they didn’t want to allow marijuana growers.
They also pointed to a majority of township voters rejecting the legalization of recreational marijuana. Election results show the township went against the 2018 ballot question by 728-807.
Some commenters blasted a township newsletter sent prior to the meeting that incorrectly claimed most township voters favored legalization by only including in-person vote tallies — Benak insisted it was a mistake and said she sent out a correction by email.
Still others, including former Michigan Medical Marihuana Licensing Board member Don Bailey, cautioned the businesses could bring problems like black-market sales and other crime, or potential lawsuits against the township.
Other commenters questioned whether a township trustee had a conflict of interest.
Northpoint Farms’ former cherry processing plant is ideally suited for a marijuana growing business, said Mike Corcoran, an attorney who spoke on behalf of the LLC.
Chris Hubbell, who owns Northpoint Farms, rejected the idea that there’s any conflict.
“My brother doesn’t own the farm and I don’t own his farm, he hasn’t got a penny invested in it,” he told trustees.
Trustee Paul Hubbell echoed this and told trustees he checked with his own attorney, who agreed there’s no issue.
Popp prior to the meeting said he had concerns about a potential conflict, or the appearance of one, but noted Hubbell’s decision was on an ordinance for the whole township rather than something that would benefit anyone specifically.
Marijuana in various forms is legal in Michigan now, and letting farmers enter the industry could be a lifeline as international trade wars batter cherry prices, argued some commenters who favored the ordinances.
Some of the fears over health and crime didn’t move other commenters, and Corcoran said concerns over lawsuits were red herrings — legal challenges frequently center on dispensary licensing, which won’t be an issue in the township.
Plus, residents who disagree with the ordinance don’t have to take the township to court, but can seek a ballot question to repeal them, Corcoran said.
“You have the right of referendum, that’s your recourse, OK? You don’t have to go get injunctions,” he said.
Others rejected the reasoning that the 2017 poll was representative of the township — Chris Hubbell said the response was a few hundred out of a few thousand township residents, a point Goss echoed before the first vote.
The industry and product it makes is tightly regulated, and township ordinances add another layer of safeguards, she said. Trustees agreed when they originally opted out of marijuana businesses to regularly revisit the issue, and she told commenters she read and took into account all the public comment she received.
Paul Hubbell said he reversed positions from 2019 when the township passed an ordinance prohibiting marijuana businesses, and gave the reason why.
“Yeah, I have, I’ve educated myself on medical marijuana and what it can do for people,” he said.
Trustees agreed to remove a permitting requirement for recreational growers and processors that would’ve also required a medical cannabis business permit. Popp argued that put licensing fees even more out of reach for small growers, and the revision is pending township attorney review.