A rezoning request for a commercial cannabis growing facility in an existing greenhouse at NatureSweet was withdrawn during the Graham County Board of Supervisors meeting Monday morning.
By Jon Johnson
SAFFORD – Sensing the writing was on the wall for a vote against their rezoning proposal, Bayacan, Inc. withdrew its request during the Graham County Board of Supervisors meeting Monday morning.
Bayacan was represented by attorney Heather Dukes of the Phoenix law firm Snell & Wilmer. Dukes specializes in zoning and land use planning.
Bayacan had sought to rezone an area of a greenhouse at NatureSweet at 26050 NatureSweet Avenue from General Land Use to Unlimited Manufacturing to have a cannabis growing operation that would then sell its products wholesale.
After more than an hour of discussion, which included roughly 25 minutes by the supervisors, Dukes withdrew the request. Dukes had sought a continuance of at least 30 days to have additional time to speak with neighboring residents and businesses. Dukes also said the supervisors’ decision would impact the county and Bonita School District for years to come. However, when it became apparent the board was going to vote against the rezoning request, she withdrew it, which, essentially, works just as well as a continuance as Bayacan, LLC can now refile a rezoning request at its convenience in the near future.
“I am disappointed, to say the least,” Dukes said. “We are very committed to working with your community – with the county – in the future.”
“There’s a lot of misinformation that has been shared today on the record, and it’s going to take some more time to get that information out to correct it. With that, I would, respectfully, withdraw our application.”
An array of people – mostly residents or business owners in the area – spoke against the passage of the rezoning request.
Graham County Substance Abuse Coalition Director Kathy Grimes spoke against the passage of the rezoning request out of her disapproval of cannabis. She spoke of a cultivation site in Santa Cruz County and said they were growing a “mother plant” that had a delta9-Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) level of 73 percent. THC is the compound in cannabis that gives it a psychoactive high. Other compounds include Cannabidiol (CBD), which purports an array of medical uses and is legal to use in all 50 states.
However, according to High Times magazine, the current highest strain of marijuana is called Godfather OG, an Indica-dominant hybrid that has been tested to have up to 34 percent THC, even though most cuttings test at around 28 percent. Another Indica-dominant hybrid called Chemdawg has been tested by Denver breeder Next Harvest at 32 percent THC. Most high-THC strains are in the mid 20 percent range.
While no marijuana plant has ever even come close to what Grimes claimed, concentrates (extracts) such as oil, wax, or hashish, can have very high THC levels. However, according to Arizona state law, extracts are also regulated as to how much a person can have and how high a concentrate’s THC percentage can be in products such as edibles.
Martin Fleming and his daughter, Wendy McComber, owners of Fleming’s thoroughbred horse farm, spoke against the rezone and said it would reduce their property values and destroy their business. In addition to their worries about environmental factors, they said the traffic on the road would be hazardous to other local farming concerns.
Fleming said that if the county feels building such a facility would be beneficial to the county, it should build it closer to the Safford/Thatcher/Pima areas, which would then provide better access to police and emergency services and more likely have local employment than its current proposed location in Bonita.
Graham County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Vance Bryce spoke in favor of granting a continuance and said it would be beneficial to allow the company more time to talk to the community about the proposed project and allow incoming supervisor John Howard a chance to tour a “sister facility” called The Pharm in Cochise County. Bryce described the chance to utilize the existing greenhouse at NatureSweet as a “great, great opportunity.”
Bayacan has held two job fairs in Safford, and Dukes reported more than 200 applications have been submitted, with 67 percent coming from Safford residents, 15 percent from Thatcher, and 9 percent from Pima. She said all but five applicants came from Graham County. Bayacan previously reported it desired to hire between 100 – 150 people and then ramp up to about 600 people when fully operational in about six years.
Supervisor Danny Smith questioned the number of people who would actually work at the site and said he didn’t think the majority would come from Graham County. Smith pointed out that the city of Benson is actually a mile closer to the site than the town of Thatcher, and that even during EuroFresh’s previous height of operation at the same site only a handful of Graham County residents actually worked there.
“People don’t live here and work there,” Smith said. “They just don’t. We’ve had 20 years of history with NatureSweet being out there and now The Pharm. I took a tour last Thursday (of The Pharm) and I asked one of the security guards how many people worked there and he let me know there are 250 people who work there on The Pharm. I asked him how many live over here and he could tell me at least one. There’s not a large connection between southern Graham County and the (Gila) Valley in that way.”
Smith also questioned the actuality of a reported tax benefit to the county and said the tax benefit would continue to be from property taxes, which it currently already receives as it is. He also listed issues the county previously had with EuroFresh (whose owners are involved with Bayacan) regarding past property taxes and said the county spent about $463,000 in taxpayer money to get them to pay their property taxes between 2005 and 2010. Smith said the county also has had issues with property tax payments from NatureSweet between 2013 and 2016 and that it settled rather than spend more taxpayer money. Smith said the county is currently working with NatureSweet on even more property tax issues.
Smith said that “there is a tremendous amount of work to be done” before the business is ready to operate. Indeed, with a possible partnership with The Pharm up for grabs due to an internal struggle between proprietors, Bayacan might have to petition the state for a new license to grow cannabis if a deal with The Pharm could not be reached to work in conjunction.
Supervisor Jim Palmer and Chairman Paul David echoed Smith’s concerns regarding the reported job possibilities and tax benefits. David also went a step further and said that he stands with those residents who live in the area and their concerns and that it wouldn’t make a difference if they continued the request for “30, 60, or 90 days or next year” if the residents still opposed the rezoning.
After failing to have a motion for the continuance, Dukes was allowed to have a rebuttal of the information given against the rezoning and chose to withdraw the application at that time.