High Stakes For Would-Be Weed Farmers in Ouray County

By Samantha Tisdel Wright | Ouray County

Tuesday, Jan. 20 got off to an unusual start for staffers at the Ouray County Land Use Department. At 7 a.m., they arrived at work to find a small knot of people clustered outside the office building located near the landfill north of Ridgway, waiting in line to hand-deliver their applications for marijuana grow operations within the county.

With only five slots available on a first-come, first-served basis in this first year of legalized commercial marijuana cultivation in Ouray County, the stakes were high. One of the applicants – Tim Connor of Telluride – plopped down with a camp chair and blanket in front of the Ouray County Land Use Office several days prior to the Jan. 20 deadline to ensure he would be the first to submit his application, according to Ouray County Land Use Administrator Mark Castrodale.

Another local applicant, Ouray County resident Tim Manzagol of Shining Mountain Herb Farm, joined him the night prior to the deadline.

“It was kind of bizarre to roll up and have people we know camped out in sleeping bags in front of our office,” Castrodale said, adding that the atmosphere was “respectful and serious.”

After all, entering the marijuana grow business is not something to be taken lightly.

“There is a lot of detail and complexity, and a lot of investment,” Castrodale said, estimating that some applicants have spent upwards of $35,000 so far on legal, consulting and other up-front costs that do not even include the purchase or lease of land and infrastructure to set up a grow operation.

“It’s a significant investment – which keeps your fly-by-nighters away,” he said. “You’ve got to have financial backing; you’ve got to know what you are doing and have business sense – and help from an attorney. There’s a lot more to it than plants and dirt and a grow light.”

In contrast to Adams County in the Denver Metro area, where more than 1,600 people applied to a lottery system which last week granted a total of just 10 applications for marijuana testing, manufacturing, growing, and retail sales, there has not turned out to be much competition – so far – for the available slots in Ouray County. 

As of Monday, Feb. 2, only five applicants have put their names in the hat for the five marijuana cultivation licenses that Ouray County will issue this year.

These applicants include:

  • Longtime local ranching couple Bob and Judy Wolford, proposing to operate a marijuana cultivation facility called Dallas Creek Nurseries on the their Lone Pine Ranch on County Road 24;
  • Tim Connor of Telluride and Matthew Kibler of Denver, proposing to operate TH Cultivation LLC on County Road 23;
  • Tim and Sheila Manzagol who wish to add a marijuana cultivation and product manufacturing component to their Shining Mountain Herb Farm on County Road 23;
  • Daniel Zemke and Scott Abraham of Telluride, proposing to operate General Cannabis Labs on a parcel of land seven miles north of Ridgway on Highway 550 that they have leased from the owner of Deb’s Livery.

The fifth slot is reserved for Acme/Grand Mesa Growers, a company headquartered in Ouray County that is already growing marijuana at an old concrete plant south of Ridgway to supply a number of dispensaries and recreational pot stores that it operates in communities across the Western Slope. Under the terms of Ouray County’s new pot ordinance, Acme is poised to expand exponentially in the coming year.

The operation, which got its start as a medical marijuana grow facility, was grandfathered in as a preexisting nonconforming use when Ouray County adopted a marijuana moratorium after the passage of Amendment 64 in 2012.

While Acme is already actively growing both recreational and medicinal weed, the four remaining applicants won’t be allowed to launch their grow operations until the county issues them permits – which will take action from the Ouray Board of County Commissioners in the coming months. If for some reason one or more of the applications are rejected, space will open up for new applicants to take their place.

Per its newly adopted marijuana ordinance, the county will issue up to 10 more marijuana cultivation permits in 2016, for which it will begin accepting applications on Dec. 1, 2015. 

“It will be interesting to see where this is in ten years,” Castrodale said. “Will it be like buying a six pack? Will there be a marijuana store on every corner? If things continue to loosen up, supply and demand will drive costs down, and it won’t be the cash cow that it is today.”

Acceptance, Ambivalence, Abhorrence

Ouray County is an interesting case study among the 22 Colorado counties that have opened their doors to the commercial marijuana industry.

Amendment 64, which legalized recreational pot in Colorado, gave counties and municipalities local control over how, or whether, to allow the commercial sale and cultivation of marijuana for recreational use in their own jurisdictions.

Ouray County’s two municipalities – Ouray and Ridgway – have taken radically different approaches on the marijuana legalization issue, with Ridgway welcoming the industry (and its potential to boost town coffers through increased sales tax revenues) with open arms, and the majority of Ouray residents abhorring the prospect of any form of marijuana business in town. Twice the issue has gone before the Ouray electorate, and twice voters have rejected the specter of marijuana businesses and dispensaries within town limits.

The issue has been divisive, drawing large crowds of marijuana opponents at a number of public meetings in Ouray over the past several years.

But strangely, as the Ouray County Commissioners have grappled with the issue of how or whether to allow marijuana cultivation in the unincorporated county, “we haven’t heard a peep from anyone who opposes,” Castrodale said. “The only person with any cautionary response has been the public health director.”

Details of New Ordinance

Ouray County officially lifted its prohibition on medical marijuana facilities, marijuana cultivation, marijuana retail facilities and marijuana production facilities with the adoption of a new ordinance last December, spelling out local licensing and zoning requirements for such operations.

The legislation went into effect in mid-January, at the same time that an existing moratorium on all retail and medical marijuana operations in the county expired, paving the way for grow operations anywhere in unincorporated Ouray County where farming and ranching is a use by right pursuant to the Ouray County Land Use Code.

Per the terms of the ordinance, cultivation must occur in an enclosed space, and be subject to local and state security requirements while following best practices to conserve energy and water in cultivation operations.

The ordinance also requires marijuana cultivation facilities to reduce visual impacts through blending (per the Ouray County Land Use Code), to decrease the visibility of greenhouses and other structures from adjacent properties or roads, and to operate in a manner that does not create a “nuisance” to its neighbors in regard to odors, noise and other factors.

The ordinance also permits retail marijuana sales in Ouray County’s “Colona Zone” and a small patch of commercially zoned land on Log Hill.

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About the Author

Samantha Wright

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Samantha Tisdel Wright writes and raises two red-headed children in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado, dividing her time between Silverton and Ouray. She has worked as a reporter and editor for a variety of publications throughout the region, and is proud to be a founding member and co-editor of the San Juan Independent. samantha@sjindependent.org