A medicinal marijuana provider in Butte says she has been growing the plants in the old, vacant Greeley School for months and was still doing so this week despite a “cease and desist” letter from county officials who says she’s violating local zoning laws.
Lacee Monique says she had leased the building at 2400 Silver Bow Blvd. on the Flat in northeast Butte since December before agreeing to buy it in May, and has been upfront with state officials and police about growing marijuana for her patients there.
She is now seeking a variance from the Butte-Silver Bow Zoning Board, which granted one in 2015 so the owner then — Doug Ingraham — could turn the vacant elementary school into apartments and a shop that would sell sodas and snacks to neighbors. Those plans obviously never materialized.
Variance or not, Monique says she doesn’t believe she is violating any laws and will take the issue to District Court and beyond if needed because her card-holding patients need the marijuana for chronic pain and other medical conditions.
“I will take it as high as I need to,” Monique told The Montana Standard on Wednesday. She said she is only seeking the variance because county officials told her to do that.
County officials are sticking to their stance, too, saying the grow operation is not a permitted use in the area, which is zoned R-4 for manufactured homes. They say the county allows legal marijuana operations only in commercial or industrial zones.
“As a result, you must immediately cease and desist of any and all activities associated with marijuana production,” Dylan Pipinich, the county’s senior planner, said in a July 9 letter to Monique.
Failure to stop may result in a $500 fine and up to six months in jail under Butte’s municipal code, with each day being a separate offense, the letter says.
The letter says county staff was contacted by Butte-Silver Bow Commissioner John Sorich and a neighbor regarding use of the property. Staff then visited the site and took pictures of the grow operations inside.
Monique said she told Butte police about the operation from the start and was told it was OK as long as she was registered with the state and following all state laws. They told her if there were any zoning issues, that was a matter for zoning officials, she said.
Undersheriff George Skuletich said Wednesday that he was not aware of any previous discussions officers might have had with Monique. But given the county’s letter, which was also sent to the county attorney’s office, she should stop grow operations pending further proceedings, he said.
The Zoning Board has scheduled a public hearing on Monique’s variance request at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 16, in council chambers of the courthouse.
Planning staff was to file a formal report and recommendation on the variance request sometime Thursday.
Planning Director Lori Casey said staff has been clear with Monique since recently learning about the grow operation.
“Our recommendation is going to be denial and the staff report will go into more detail,” Casey said Wednesday, noting that the Zoning Board does not always follow staff recommendations.
Sorich, whose district includes the Greeley School, said a concerned resident contacted him about its use and he asked county officials to look into it.
The school used to be a focal point in the Greeley neighborhood — mostly houses, mobile homes and a few bars situated just south of current mining operations and close to East Middle School.
Greeley School was built around 1900, underwent some changes over the years and was closed because of budget cuts in 2004. New uses have been explored and suggested since then, but it has sat empty and surrounded by weeds for years now.
Ingraham Environmental Inc., an asbestos cleanup firm in Butte, ultimately acquired the property 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.
The Standard left voice-mail messages for Ingraham on Tuesday and Wednesday that were not returned, but by all appearances over the past few years, his plans never got far.
Property records show that Monique agreed to buy the property, which is fenced in and includes playground equipment, this past May. She said she had leased it for months before then.
Monique is a registered provider through Montana’s marijuana program and has a dispensary called Kannatonic at 1635 Harrison Ave. There are currently 17 providers in Butte registered with the state.
She had been legally growing marijuana for the business in her garage and in Rocker, but switched to the new location in December, she said.
Officials with state’s Medical Marijuana Program knew about her operation at the school, she said. The Standard asked them for an update on her legal status early Wednesday afternoon but got no response as of Wednesday evening.
There is a provision in state law that allows local restrictions on medical marijuana operations, including zoning ordinances, but the department is not always immediately aware of conflicts.
Just this week, state officials said they would not issue new marijuana dispensary licenses within the city limits of Billings because of local laws. The owners of two marijuana businesses there have filed lawsuits challenging the local restrictions.
Monique said the Greeley building is locked and secure, she has security cameras and alarms, there are filters to keep smells from escaping and the lawns are being watered now.
Only a portion of the old school is being used for growing, she said, and she and others are making improvements to other rooms. She said she has new plans for 24/7 in-person security.
“I want to take care of it, I want to liven it up,” she said. “It seems like there has been a black cloud over Greeley.”
Sorich, the county commissioner, said he is concerned about possible electrical code violations at the school. He also said he was not “totally against” marijuana being used for medical purposes, but does not think a grow operation is appropriate in a residential neighborhood.