Whitefish Council Approves Permit for Dispensary on Baker Avenue

Opponents included local churches and Whitefish Credit Union

By Mike Kordenbrock
Whitefish City Hall on May 20, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The Whitefish City Council on Aug. 15 voted by a three-to-one margin to approve a conditional use permit for a dispensary on Baker Avenue.

OBR Management’s plans for a marijuana dispensary at the 333 Baker Ave. location met with some opposition from area residents as well as Whitefish Credit Union, which owns property, including a bank to the northwest, and an ATM across the street. Two nearby churches also voiced opposition to the dispensary. Voting in favor of the permit were councilors Ben Davis, Andy Feury and Frank Sweeney.

Opponents had an ally in Councilor Rebecca Norton, who was the lone vote in opposition and was also the lone vote against approval during a July planning board meeting. Norton was ultimately able to gain the support of Councilor Ben Davis and Councilor Frank Sweeney for an amendment to the permit that requires the dispensary’s signage to be on Fourth Street instead of Baker Avenue.

“I do think it’s confusing to the public to have the address and the signage accessing Baker, and it’s a major thoroughfare into town. I think it would be more discrete if it was on Fourth, maybe not so upsetting to the neighbors,” Norton said.

Josh Wilson, Whitefish Credit Union’s senior vice president of marketing, addressed the council during the public comment portion of the hearing.

“The sale of recreational marijuana represents a threat to the physical safety of our employees and our members,” Wilson said, before referencing a 2019 City University of New York study the credit union submitted to the council as evidence of the risk the dispensary poses. That study looked at crime in Denver in street segments with recreational dispensaries and found no changes in violent, disorder or drug crime, but did find significantly higher levels of property crime. 

Opponents also pointed to the dispensary’s proximity to a church as proof that the permit should be denied. But city staff found that the dispensary’s location is in compliance with state and local laws, including the state’s three-part test for dispensary locations, and recommended conditional approval.

“While a couple of churches are within 500 feet, it doesn’t meet the three-part test,” City Planning Director Dave Taylor said.

The arguments against approving the dispensary were not compelling for Councilor Andy Feury.

“I have a hard time with the proximity argument, because I think from both our planning staff and our city attorney that’s not a valid argument for denial so I can’t really hang my hat on that for denial,” Feury said. “The crime argument I think I would certainly have to look at those studies pretty carefully to see where the location of those facilities were that were studied. Arguably, we have a liquor store that’s a block up the street and I don’t think we’ve seen a significant increase in crime there and alcohol probably causes more problems in this country than marijuana does, so it’s not a valid argument to me.”