Yakima County is overwhelmed with a huge backlog of code violation cases — more than 1,300 — with little resources to handle them.
Such violations include junked cars, buildings constructed without permits and makeshift businesses operating in areas zoned for agriculture.
Last year county commissioners hoped to better fund code enforcement, but there were more pressing priorities. Little has changed.
Now, the issue has come into sharper focus with several marijuana businesses operating in unincorporated areas of the county, where the county has banned such operations.
Many of those businesses previously operated as medicinal providers solely catering to the medicinal market. But a change in state regulations placed them in the broader recreational retail market, which the county doesn’t allow.
Commissioners are now pondering whether to devote more money to enforce the ban or lift it altogether.
“To jump to conclusions here about how we’re going to act, and going to respond at this point is going to be a mistake,” Commissioner Mike Leita said.
Commissioners recently streamlined steps to speed up code enforcement.
Previously, complaints went before commissioners, then to District Court in efforts to get violators to comply. If that didn’t work, the matter went to Superior Court, where the county would seek a court order giving it power to take action, such as cleaning up a piece of property.
Now, complaints do not need to go before commissioners nor through District Court.
“We can expedite code enforcement,” Leita said. “Code enforcement has been very problematic for the county because of the number of processes we have in place. This will set the stage, put us in a better process to deal with marijuana.”
Change or status quo?
But the change in the enforcement process doesn’t completely solve the problem. There are only two code enforcement officers covering the entire 4,296-square-mile county, plus legal costs develop when someone challenges enforcement in court.
And when it comes to pot, the more than 20 marijuana businesses with state licenses located in unincorporated areas of the county — most of them processors and producers — have said they wouldn’t hesitate to challenge the county’s ban in court, said Jeffery D. McPhee, CEO of Tetra-Max Global, who represents medicinal marijuana operations throughout the region.
“Most likely as a group,” he said. “That’s been our goal — strength in numbers. We would be willing to contest that.”
Commissioner Leita suggests devoting another $200,000 to code enforcement’s annual $250,000 budget to take on marijuana operations.
If not, marijuana businesses could simply be added to the already long list of outstanding violations.
Allocating more money to code enforcement would require other county departments and offices to trim their budgets to make that happen.
Leita plans to discuss the proposal with the rest of the commission on Monday. Other elected officials such as the sheriff, prosecuting attorney, auditor, treasurer and clerk also would have to support the move, Leita said.
Commissioner Kevin Bouchey said he’s willing to take another look at the request, but says there are other budget demands that must be considered.
Next week commissioners begin preliminary work on next year’s operating budget.
“I would support bringing the subject up again,” Bouchey said. “It’s easy to say yes, but we have to be realistic with the resources we have.
It’s going to be an interesting budget process. It’s going to be an interesting decision.”
Enforce or not?
Prosecuting Attorney Brusic said he’d support a decision to go after the marijuana businesses, but says there are more pressing concerns.
Code enforcement officers said they have identified about a half-dozen marijuana operations in the county that are operating without a state license.
Brusic said the county should focus resources on stopping them because they are operating illegally.
He’s not against allowing those with state license to continue operating.
“They’re trying to comply; I respect that,” Brusic said. “They don’t comply with county law, but at least they comply with state law which the voters allowed them to do.”
Brusic said his office could simply decide not to prosecute those operating with a state license. “We have that discretion.”
However, a decision will have to be agreed upon by the county’s entire Law and Justice Committee, which represents the sheriff, clerk, offices of the prosecuting attorney and assigned council, corrections and courts.
Either way, marijuana is something the county has to live with, Brusic said.
“Let’s face it, marijuana is not going away; the genie is out of the bottle.”