Budtender Kirsten Duncan refills plastic jars at Starbuds on September 16, 2015. (Denver Post file)

Why Denver weed growing license could be yanked

For the first time, a Denver marijuana grow operation could lose its license because of neighborhood push-back.

A hearing officer’s recommended denial, if accepted, jeopardizes the license that allows Starbuds to grow plants on the second floor of a recreational marijuana shop it operates at 4690 Brighton Blvd., near the National Western Stock Show. That is the original location of the marijuana chain.

Neighborhood activists in Elyria-Swansea, which is home to businesses with more than three dozen marijuana cultivation licenses, have been pushing back against the saturation of odor-emitting grow operations in an area where homes and industry long have coexisted. Starbuds could become their first successful target.

But Starbuds has lodged several objections. Its attorney contended that the hearing officer, Suzanne A. Fasing, incorrectly interpreted zoning code and shouldn’t have held a hearing on the renewal in the first place, and he reiterated that Starbuds was willing to take more measures to control odors, as the city soon will require of all grows.

The final decision is up to Stacie Loucks, the executive director of the Denver Department of Excise and Licenses, who could issue her ruling in coming days.

Starbuds received its annual renewal last year with less resistance. But this year, residents and advocates came armed with a new aspirational neighborhood plan that the city has since adopted.

Drew Dutcher, Leo Branstetter, Nola Miguel of the Cross Community Coalition, and the stock show’s president and CEO, Paul Andrews, were among those who testified at an April hearing that Starbuds’ operation, though relatively small at 240 plants, frustrates the city-backed ambition to bring positive change to the area.

On May 10, Fasing issued a written recommendation urging the city to deny the renewal of Starbuds’ retail marijuana cultivation license.

Based on the evidence, Fasing wrote in her 17-page recommended decision, “the existence of the Starbuds retail marijuana cultivation facility has negatively affected nearby properties or the neighborhood in general, including adverse effects caused by excessive odors, and therefore there is grounds to deny this renewal.”

Starbuds’ attorney, Jim C. McTurnan, counters in his May 19 objection: “To take away a license, with the livelihoods of a licensee and its employees at stake, based upon the speculative belief of four witnesses, with absolutely no scientific evidence, is unconscionable.”

City licensing department spokesman Dan Rowland said Tuesday that Loucks was still conferring with the city attorney’s office on the matter.

Rowland said the recommendation was the first to urge denial of a grow’s license renewal in an industrial mixed-use zoning district. Unlike marijuana cultivations that operate in purely industrial-zoned areas, which permit plant husbandry automatically, those in mixed-use areas face more restrictions and are subject to annual renewal hearings, he said.

The usually simple hearings were automatic until this year, when the city updated its marijuana regulations. Now a hearing must be requested by a neighborhood petition.

Besides the neighborhood concerns about Starbuds, the hearing officer also found that its grow didn’t meet zoning-based restrictions required for renewal. But Starbuds contends that it does because the city issued a permit to grow marijuana on the site as an accessory use.

“There is no evidence to suggest that Starbuds’ cultivation cannot continue to thrive along with the neighborhood,” McTurnan wrote, “and in harmony with the aspirations of the neighborhood plan.”

This story was first published on DenverPost.com