After more than six months of heavy lobbying, Bayacan and NatureSweet received their final answer Monday. The Graham County Board of Supervisors voted, 2-1, to approve a zoning change request that will allow for a marijuana greenhouse in Bonita.
Supervisors Danny Smith, John Howard and Paul David spent more than five hours listening to people on both sides during a meeting so well attended that extra chairs had to be brought in.
David and Howard voted in favor of the zoning change with Smith dissenting.
While David said he was against the zoning change last year, at that time he didn’t realize the jobs of 250 people were on the line.
He said his decision was not based on any job projections made by Bayacan but rather on the impact a no vote would have on current employees.
He also said he wasn’t going to tell anyone what they can and cannot do with their own property.
Although he did not vote for legalizing medicinal or recreational marijuana, David said he believes marijuana should be treated no differently than barleycorn or hops.
In addition, David said that for every pound of marijuana grown legally and sold, less money will wind up in the hands of illegal-drug cartels.
David also said during the meeting that he was furious to hear of rumors that he and the other supervisors have been offered bribes.
In explaining his vote, Howard, too, mentioned private property rights.
He also said that the issue at hand isn’t just about the people of Bonita, but about the county as a whole and it is his job to keep the county fiscally viable and reliable.
Howard, who said he made an unannounced trip to the greenhouses Saturday, bemoaned the fact so much disinformation has spread about the proposed operation. For example, he said it isn’t true the water from the marijuana growing operation will make its way into the water table.
Smith told the crowd that he would have a difficult time telling the people of Bonita to just “pound sand and live with” the ramifications of the marijuana operation. He expressed disappointment that Bayacan didn’t produce, in writing, a plan to address concerns about odors that may emanate from the operation. Nor did they produce signed documents regarding their promises to the Bonita Unified School District.
He also pointed out that the county has spent about $600,000 battling NatureSweet over tax disputes.
The vote came less than a week after the county’s Planning and Zoning Commission voted, 5-1, against recommending the zoning change. The commission voted against the change in December, too. When it appeared as though the supervisors were going to vote it down, Bayacan withdrew its application and then launched an all-out lobbying effort to change people’s minds.
NatureSweet Executive Chairman Bryant Ambelang told Bonita residents at a March meeting the application would not be resubmitted unless they had the community’s buy-in.
“To be honest, I can’t tell if there’s a moral objection to this. But if it’s really smell and if it’s really traffic, there are solutions to those. But at the end of the day if it’s, ‘You’re not listening to the words coming out of our mouths. We don’t want it,’ then I got it,” Ambelang said at the time.
Bonita resident Tina Dunlap reminded Ambelang of his words Monday as the 8 a.m. meeting stretched past noon. She said the community has spoken and they have not bought in.
Opponents of the proposal have repeatedly said they had moral concerns about marijuana and were worried about the future of their children. They also expressed distrust of the companies involved, concern about odors, increased traffic and a negative environmental impact on the area. The decision, many said, should not be based on money.
Ambelang said he plans to sell one or more of the company’s greenhouse sites to Bayacan, which will turn around, grow marijuana and provide it to distributors that will then decide whether it will be used for medical or recreational marijuana. Ambelang said he plans to turn two of his remaining sites into a research and development area and grow tomatoes and other crops on the remaining two.
Following the December vote of the Planning and Zoning Commission, representatives from Bayacan and NatureSweet scheduled several public meetings touting the projected benefits to the local economy that Bayacan’s proposed marijuana growing business would have. Among them, an annual donation of $120,000 to the Bonita school district and hundreds of potential jobs.
They had also spoken of dire consequences if the zoning change wasn’t approved. If the sale couldn’t take place, representatives said employees would lose their jobs, Eastern Arizona College would lose $300,000 in property tax revenue and Bonita Elementary School District would lose $650,000 in local property tax revenue for the K-8 school, a claim that school administrators denied.
Graham County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Vance Bryce spoke repeatedly in favor of the zoning change, including at Monday’s meeting. He also released a statement after last week’s commission vote.
“Our interest at the chamber is that businesses be allowed to do business,” Bryce wrote. He described the commission vote as placing “undue government barriers on business.”