Liquor and Cannabis Board not responsible for zoning enforcement, court rules

By Phil Ferolito

Yakima Herald-Republic

The state Liquor and Cannabis Board is not responsible for enforcing local zoning rules when approving marijuana business licenses, the state Court of Appeals ruled Thursday.

Kittitas County officials sought to block the state board from approving such licenses in areas where operations are prohibited by local zoning rules.

Since approval of Initiative 502 — the initiative that legalized recreational marijuana and established a market for it — many local governments across the state have enacted zoning ordinances banning recreational marijuana growing, processing and retail businesses.

On Thursday, a panel of three justices of the state Court of Appeals filed a 10-page ruling confirming that enforcement of local zoning rules is the responsibility of local authorities, not the state’s, in marijuana licensing matters.

Kittitas County argued that the state Growth Management Act — which governs municipal growth and development — requires the state to comply with local comprehensive plan and development regulations when issuing such licenses.

Appellate justices disagreed, saying the state statute only applies to the construction and operation of state facilities and not the issuance of state licenses.

While state law “requires governmental actors to abide by the same zoning rules as regular citizens, nothing in the statute suggests state agencies must be concerned with local zoning restrictions when engaged in purely governmental functions, such as determining the appropriateness of a state license,” Justice Rebecca L. Pennell wrote in the ruling. Justices George Fearing and Laurel H. Siddoway concurred.

There are other factors that influence the state board’s decision on whether to issue such a license, such as a facility’s proximity to a park, school, church or other public gathering place for youth. They’re not allowed within 1,000 feet of such places. The state board has discretion and may consider local ordinances when deciding a licensee’s application, but is not bound by them.

Kittitas County first petitioned the state board in 2017, which rejected the matter. Then the county brought the matter before Kittitas County Superior Court, where a judge ruled the state board must adhere to local zoning rules when issuing such licenses.

That ruling was reversed Thursday by the appellate court.

The appellate ruling doesn’t diminish local zoning rules, but clarifies that enforcement of them rests with local authorities.

“The board’s decision to issue a marijuana license is not a siting activity. Although the licenses are location-specific, they do not confer final authority to actually open a marijuana site. The board’s regulations specify a license holder must comply with local laws — including zoning requirements — before going into business,” the ruling said.