UPDATED RESULTS: Voters approve Ontario ballot measures on marijuana, rec district

Community members gather at Second & Vine Bistro in Ontario to monitor election results as the numbers roll in. (The Enterprise/Kristine de Leon)

ONTARIO — Voters on Tuesday approved both local ballot measures, one that repeals the city’s ban on marijuana sales and another that forms independent recreation district.

As of 11:15 p.m., 1,501 voters had supported the marijuana sales measure and 1,256 opposed it. When the first tally was released two hours earlier, supporters held the lead by just 26 votes.

Steven Meland, co-owner of Hotbox Farms dispensary in Huntington, said the initial results had surprised him. He did not expect the result would be so narrow.

“From the cannabis side of things, we’re a nervous bunch,” he said shortly after 9 p.m. after seeing the initial round of results. He said the mood was “pretty tense” as the fate of the cannabis industry in Ontario was going to be “a coin flip.” Meland owns one of a handful of cannabis businesses that planned to expand operations to Ontario if the measure passed.

Meland joined other supporters of the cannabis measure at Second & Vine Bistro in Ontario for a watch party to monitor the measure’s fate. They projected a cable show’s election coverage onto a screen and watched a laptop for local results.

The push to remove the pot ban began with a grassroots effort to get a measure on the November ballot. That proposed measure gave Ontario residents another chance to consider allowing marijuana dispensaries into the city.

When Oregon voters approved a measure legalizing marijuana in November 2014, Ontario residents voted 1,588-911 against marijuana sales. Under a state law, counties and cities could opt out of allowing marijuana activities if at least 60 percent of county voters voted against the state measure.

A year after the state vote, the Ontario city council voted to prohibit commercial marijuana businesses.

Cannabis supporters argue that the city has a financial incentive to allow marijuana sales, given its dire financial situation. Allowing commercial marijuana sales would’ve given the city a chance to collect a local sales tax on all marijuana products purchased from retailers.

Those against the marijuana initiative, however, worry that kids and teens will have more access to pot. Some mom-and-pop business owners were also concerned that bringing in the cannabis industry would increase traffic and cause parking problems.

But Meland said bringing in the cannabis industry to Ontario would bring more benefits than harm to the community.

“We in the cannabis industry hope to be good neighbors and be a business that operates ourselves with integrity,” he said. “We want to be a good neighbor and introduce cannabis to Ontario in a tasteful and classy way.”

Meland chaired Ontario’s Marijuana Ad Hoc Committee that the city created to study the potential effects and impacts of marijuana legalization in case residents try to repeal the ban.

When a local grassroots group collected enough signatures to include an initiative on the November ballot, the city assigned the ad hoc committee to make recommendations on laws governing the time, manner and place of cannabis operations and activities within the city limits.

The passage of Measure 23-61 establishes the following:

– A 3 percent local sales tax on all marijuana items purchased from recreational marijuana retailers. The tax revenue would get allocated to city’s general fund.

– A business licensing program that requires all commercial cannabis cultivation, processing and dispensaries to apply and register for an annual business license, which is contingent upon meeting state licensing requirements and acquiring a conditional use permit from the city planning department.

– A 1,000-foot buffer between retailers.

– A 1,000-foot buffer from a retailer and schools, city parks and residential areas.

Dan Cummings, community development director, said that the first step for potential pot retailers will be to apply for a conditional use permit. The application would need to be signed by the property owner if the business applicant is leasing or renting the site for a marijuana shop.

The measure to allow pot sales will take effect January 2019. But the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, which overseas recreational marijuana licenses, will not accept applications from new retailers until June 2019, at the earliest.

Businesses that already have state licenses could open sooner if they transfer them to a new Ontario location or buy one from another license holder.

Voters also approved the creation of a new, independent recreation district.

As of 11:15 p.m., 2,091 people voted in favor of Measure 23-61 and 1,776 against it.

The proposal followed the decision of Ontario City Council to eliminate its recreation department, which fields a variety of sports and youth programs. In May, Malheur County Commissioners approved ballot language for the citizen-led effort to create a new government that would run a recreation program.

The new district would not take over maintenance and ownership of parks, which would still be operated by the city.

Robert Boyd, an Ontario teacher who appeared set to secure a seat on the new district’s board said he was surprised the measure did not pass by a wider margin.

“I thought it was going to be a slam dunk,” said Boyd.

“We need to have recreational programs to keep middle class families here,” said Boyd. “I know that it’s a tax issue and people worry about that.”

If the current results hold, Measure 23-61 would set a property tax rate of 55 cents per $1,000 of property value to fund the recreation district’s functions, which will be governed by a five-member board of directors. The proposed tax rate is expected to generate $600,000 after the first year of implementation.

The property tax would apply to properties served by the Ontario School District, which includes households within city limits.

The rec district program emulates the idea behind the Ontario Library District, which was once operated by the city but is now independent and is funded by property taxes.

Boyd said one of the rec district’s responsibilities would be to show those who voted against the measure that having a recreation program is an asset for the community.

“I’m a long-time resident of Ontario and I remember there was time when we had a swimming pool, golf course, a mall and lots of activities for kids to get involved in,” Boyd said. “By getting this rec district, we can start rebuilding the town instead keep losing families.”

Seven people campaigned for five seats on the recreation district board. Only Boyd, who earned 1,833 votes, could be reached for comment late Tuesday night.

Mary Jo Evers, who spearheaded the measure, secured the most votes, 1, 933, followed by Megan Cook with 1,890 and Matt Mejia with 1,885. They will serve three-year terms. Boyd and Toni Davila, who received 1,736 votes, will hold office for one year.

Melissa Wieland and Harvey Hatfield Jr. did not earn enough ballots to take a seat on the board, tallying 1,393 and 1,268 votes.