Whitefish Council Votes in Favor of More Stringent Distancing Requirements for Dispensaries

Planning and Building Director Dave Taylor told the planning board last month that no pending applications would be impacted by the changes

By Mike Kordenbrock
A jar filled with marijuana flower at a dispensary in Whitefish on May 17, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The Whitefish City Council voted unanimously at its July17 meeting in favor of amending its zoning regulations for marijuana dispensaries to increase the required distance between dispensaries and schools, churches and other dispensaries.

The vote came about five months after concerns from members of the public and council prompted the passage of an emergency ordinance in February prohibiting approval of new applications for conditional use permits for marijuana dispensaries for the next six months.

The council got a look at the proposed changes they voted on this week at an April work session during which council members expressed support for the changes. The only discussion among members of the council before this week’s vote came when Councilor Giuseppe Caltabiano asked a brief clarifying question about the approval procedure.

Cities have the right to put in place more restrictive buffering and distancing requirements for dispensaries than are required by the state, and the amendments approved by the council are, in part, an attempt to do away with a loophole to the state’s three-part test used to determine a dispensary’s proximity to a place of worship or school.

That test looks to see if the entrance doors of the place of worship or school are situated on the same street, if the physical address of the premises proposed for licensing is designated on the same street as the physical address of the place of worship or school, and if the distance as measured in a straight line from the entrance doors of the business proposed for licensing and the entrance doors for the place of worship or school is 500 feet or less. All three elements of that test need to be met for enforcement of the state’s distancing requirement, meaning dispensaries could potentially pass the three-part test if they were to locate their entrance on a different addressed street, despite the building being within 500 feet of a school or place of worship.

The new amendments to Whitefish’s zoning regulations also increase the distance required between marijuana dispensaries from 150 feet to 500 feet.

Dave Taylor, the planning director for the city of Whitefish, presented on the new amendments to the city’s planning board last month, at which time he said there were no pending applications impacted by the changes. The new rules also don’t apply to existing dispensary permitholders, which are grandfathered in. The planning board unanimously voted to approve recommendation of the changes.

In his presentation to the city council this week, Taylor described how the new distancing requirements would effectively eliminate the chance of any additional new dispensaries going into the downtown area with its present configuration.

During the April work session, the most skepticism was expressed by Councilor Steve Qunell, who described concerns about how he believed marijuana was being unfairly treated by comparison to alcohol, which he said is much more destructive drug. Still, Qunell said at the time at he could support the new distancing requirements.

“I can support those changes,” Councilor Frank Sweeney said during the same April work session. “I think it addresses some of the concerns of some of the community. If we don’t have another dispensary in town there isn’t anybody in town that is going to be wanting or unable to acquire whatever they want. I think that it’s not going to affect the consumer in any form or fashion.”