Cannabis merchants vie for land and pot permits in Ontario

One of Hotbox Farms’ potential marijuana retail locations is the former Sweet Caroline’s Cafe along East Idaho Avenue in Ontario. (The Enterprise/Kristine de Leon)

ONTARIO – Selling weed in Ontario is going to be a cash cow.

That’s one takeaway from a review of 22 applications from companies vying to join the green industry in Ontario, where residents voted to repeal the local marijuana ban during the November election. 

The applicants, who put their names forward during the days following the election, are a hungry group of marijuana entrepreneurs. 

There are Portland business owners seeking a toehold in the high desert. One applicant who crusaded hard for the repeal has his eyes on six sites. And the Washington state dispensary owner who funded the initiative has one.

The application list provided by Ontario’s Community Development office shows a modern-day land grab in the cannabis industry, with early adopters from other Oregon cities setting their sights on new territories as more jurisdictions allow legal cannabis businesses to set up shop.

Not every pot venture will walk away a winner, though. There’s a lot of uncertainty and risk at play.

Like many Oregon cities that have allowed the green industry, Ontario is restricting marijuana businesses to certain areas. The new land-use ordinance will naturally limit the number of retailers that can operate in town.

“There are 24 sites so far. But there aren’t going to be 24 dispensaries,” said Dan Cummings, the city’s community development director. “Remember there’s a 1000-foot buffer around each retailer. But those inside a buffer won’t be totally out. They can do other things. They just can’t do retail, where the big money’s at.”

The applications will get processed on a first-come, first-served basis, he said.

“First thing to do is get a priority number,” said Cummings. “Then they have to have their application filled out, provide a document showing that they truly have authority of using this place for their line of business.”

He had to turn down six applicants who put their name down earlier in the week due to incomplete applications. Potential marijuana business owners have 24 hours to turn in the required documents once they put down their name, according to Cummings.

To pass the first stage, Cummings said applicants needed a signed lease, a deed or purchase agreement of the property and documentation that the owner acknowledges that they approve the applicant’s intentions.

This will take care of the requirements for a conditional-use permit, he said. The conditional-use permit will also help the applicant obtain a Land Use Compatibility Statement, which is required for state licensing.

“The LUCS form is basically a way of showing the state that that piece of property has been approved by local officials,” Cummings said.

But of the 24 applications for a conditional-use permit in Ontario, only a certain number will meet city regulations and zoning requirements. 

Cummings estimates that there are 13 possible sites, provided that the properties meet the development requirements. He added that there are three more spots in town still available. If pot entrepreneurs decide to tie those up, Cummings estimates that are 16 possible retail sites. 

“I probably talk to 20-30 people a day, and they’re all people just trying to look for find spots,” said Cummings. “ The office has gotten hundreds of calls from people looking.”

Regardless of who is awarded a permit in the end, future pot businesses will be clustering in distinct parts of the city.

Most companies have scoped out potential locations along the commercial sections of Idaho Avenue as far west as Highway 201 and as far east as a spot near the water treatment plant by the Snake River. 

A complicated process

In June, state cannabis regulators temporarily stopped taking.

The Oregon Liquor Control Commission wanted to clear its persistent backlog of license applications.

“As of today, we have about 650 applications that have been assigned to inspectors, meaning they are being checked, all filed applications, background checks, et cetera,” said Mark Pettinger, spokesperson for the OLCC’s recreational marijuana program. “Another 830 of them that are ready for assignment, or the waiting pile and 620 have not been approved land use compatibility statement.”

As of Nov. 16, Oregon counted 2,091 recreational marijuana licenses, according to the OLCC’s list of approved licenses. About 600 are licensed recreational retailers.

Despite the application pause, the OLCC recently discussed plans to make way for the cities and counties that repealed their local pot ban in the last election.

“We’ve been in contact with the jurisdictions that have recently overturned a marijuana ban,” said Pettinger. “Based on the date when local ordinance changes, we will provide applicants an on-ramp that bypasses the June 2019 pause, which will enable individuals or entities to apply for licenses through the state.”

Ontario is one of four cities that repealed a pot ban, including Clatskanie, Joseph and Klamath Falls. Applicants from these cities will get priority over those that have an application waiting in line.

“The idea is that these new applicants will get prioritization to file applications within a fixed amount of time,” said Pettinger. “In this instance, though, there will be a clock running to get their completed application submitted.”

The OLCC doesn’t yet know when or how long that period will be, he said. The state agency is still trying to figure out their staff resources and a fair plan to handle the work.

“We haven’t decided on that time frame yet,” Pettinger said. “The other thing too is that we might try to understand more what type of application we are receiving. So, it’ll be longer to process producer applications than retail applications.”

Cities can set their own rules to govern who gets into the marijuana business.

“The business license will set the fees, the hours and days businesses they will be allowed to operate,” said Cummings.

The local licensing laws, however, are yet to be finalized. 

Reporter Kristine de Leon: 541-473-3377 or [email protected].