By Leota Harriman

The Torrance County Commission allowed a medical marijuana growing operation to go forward and passed a road policy last week.

In only 10 minutes, the commission voted to uphold its planning and zoning director’s interpretation of its ordinance, giving approval to a medical cannabis growing operation near Mountainair.

At its meeting two weeks previously, the commission had continued its executive session after hours of testimony and no action taken.

The issue was planning and zoning director Steve Guetschow’s interpretation of the county’s subdivision ordinance, which specifically allows low-impact agriculture and farming, including the cultivation of plants.

Neighbors argued that the five hoop greenhouses constitute commercial use of the property, which is in a “conservation zone” which, according to the ordinance, “protects and preserves areas within the County which are characterized by their limited access, minimal development, limitations on water resources, natural beauty, fragile environment and native wildlife populations.”

Because the earlier proceeding was a “quasi-judicial” hearing, the commission’s decision may now be appealed in district court.

Neighbors argued against allowing the operation based on water use, and the fact that cannabis, while legal for medicinal purposes in New Mexico, is still a controlled substance under federal laws.

Natural Rx, the company that owns the greenhouses, said that it is trucking in water for the growing operation because the well onsite is for domestic purposes only according to the state engineer. They also said that the operation is not commercial because sales of the medical marijuana would take place elsewhere.

If those sales take place elsewhere, that also means that Torrance County will see no gross receipts tax revenue from the growing operation.

Representatives from Natural Rx did meet with the county last week, but the county has no legal standing on the issue, attorney Brandon Huss told the commissioners.

Huss said the neighbors, who appealed Guetschow’s initial decision to allow the operation, “informed me they did not want to participate” in a meeting with Natural Rx. “With that, I do not think it would be appropriate to put into the record any of the proposals or deals with the landowners, because we didn’t have standing to make any kind of a deal—this wasn’t our appeal.”

Commission chairman LeRoy Candelaria then said, “With that, I guess we are ready to take action on this matter. Being it’s in my district I think it’s appropriate that I do the motion, and I move to deny the appeal of the planning and zoning’s order, to affirm Mr. Guetschow’s decision with regard to the medical marijuana facility in Loma Parda.”

His motion was seconded by Jim Frost. “Personally I am against marijuana, although I know medical marijuana is a different subject,” Frost said. “The same as many other drugs and other pills and things that can be legal and are also treated in the wrong way many times. … There’s a possibility this could end up in a court and I know that … the county has to be responsible for whatever that decision might be financially. I know it’s not a cut and dried deal either way.”

Commissioner Julia DuCharme cast the dissenting vote on the matter, and focused on what she said was commercial use of the property. Pointing to the county ordinance, she said, “It clearly says commercial uses won’t be allowed except on a case-by-case basis, in which case the primary concern of the planning and zoning commission shall be to minimize environmental impact on the area.” She continued, “I’m not convinced it is not a commercial use. You formed a business. … You admitted that you have employees working on [the] property. You admitted it is not for personal uses. Then what kind of use is that if not commercial?”

I feel that Mr. Guetschow acted with the information … provided to him by this ordinance,” Candelaria said, adding, “The only ruling that we had before this commission is whether the ordinance was interpreted in the right way or not—in my opinion it was. That’s the beauty of this country. If they don’t feel we did the right thing, the courts are there.”

With that, Candelaria called for a vote; he and Frost voted to uphold Guetschow’s interpretation, while DuCharme voted against it. The motion passed 2-1.

After a series of public meetings for input, the commission passed a road policy with virtually no discussion.

A workshop was held last month in which the commission reviewed the policy line-by-line, with comments added by the handful of residents who attended. At that time, the county attorney said he thought the policy was confusing.

The policy was amended to add comments from that workshop, and posted online for a month. During that time, the county got no input on the policy, according to county manager Joy Ansley.

The motion to adopt the policy passed unanimously.

Ansley said she has discussed adoption of about 50 additional miles of county road with the road department, and said she and the road department would come up with a procedure to accept additional roads for county upkeep.

The policy ends the old practice of designating some roads for occasional maintenance. A road will now be maintained on a schedule if it is a county road, and not maintained if it is a private road.

An exception to this will be school bus routes, as it was previously.