County staff formally recommended Thursday that a zoning variance be denied to a woman who wants to continue growing medical marijuana at the long-vacant Greeley School on the Flat in Butte.
Meanwhile, Sheriff Ed Lester said police were staying out of the situation until the Zoning Board takes up the variance request next week, and the former owner of the school says all asbestos was removed and roof work was done before he sold it in May.
Lacee Monique, a medical marijuana provider who has been growing plants in the old school, told The Montana Standard on Thursday it would have to talk to her attorney from now on, but she wouldn’t say who that was.
State officials said they could not comment on the current status of medical marijuana licenses, including Monique’s, but did state some generalities.
“It’s important to know our policy is to withhold license approval until providers are in compliance with all local ordinances — assuming we are aware of the local ordinance,” Jon Ebelt, a spokesman for the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, said via email.
It appears the next major move will come Thursday, Aug. 16, when the Zoning Board holds a public hearing and considers Monique’s request that her grow operation be allowed at the old school in northeast Butte.
Monique says she had leased the building from Doug Ingraham for months before agreeing to buy it in May. She says she’s been growing medical marijuana there and has continued to do so despite receiving a letter from county officials a few weeks ago telling her to stop.
She says she is breaking no laws, but staff with the county’s Planning Department say the school is in an R-4 zone for manufactured homes, and commercial uses — including growing marijuana — are not allowed without a variance.
In a report to the Zoning Board issued Thursday, staff notes that the school was closed in 2004, and six years later, residents drafted a neighborhood plan that was included in Butte-Silver Bow’s growth policy. Among other things, it said future use of the school should be compatible with surrounding neighborhood properties.
Ingraham Environmental Inc. later purchased the school, and in 2015, Doug Ingraham, an executive with the company, proposed new uses for it.
He got a zoning variance to convert it into 16 two-bedroom apartments. It was to have a gym that could be used by tenants and neighborhood residents and a small shop that would sell sodas, snacks, and limited grocery items.
County staff said it had no knowledge of the plan being executed and that using the school now to grow marijuana should not be allowed. It said that could create security issues and increase crime and would alter the character of the neighborhood.
The report said marijuana operations are not specifically listed in the county’s zoning ordinance, but the Planning Department and county attorney had determined that they belong in commercial or industrial zones.
Ingraham told The Montana Standard on Thursday that with help from his company, all asbestos was removed from the school and new roofing was installed on much of the building. The asbestos work alone cost $120,000, he said.
“We really tried to find a higher purpose, and we were good stewards to save that building,” he said.
But it was hard to get value from the property, and although several people expressed interest in buying it, he said a deal never materialized until Monique agreed to buy it.
He said he cautioned her about potential zoning issues but said what she did with the property was her call.
Although county staff sent Monique a letter ordering her to stop the grow operation, saying it was violating local laws, Sheriff Lester said he planned to keep his department out of it until the Zoning Board meets.
Anyone from the public can weigh in on the issue when the board meets at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday in council chambers of the courthouse. People can also submit written comments to the Planning Department at 155 W. Granite St.