Share story

DUNES CITY, Ore. (AP) — Close to the Pacific Ocean and tucked between two lakes, Dunes City is a residential oasis and a popular place to live for retirees.

Yet Dunes City has become the latest little Lane County community to become divided over marijuana. The state is reviewing plans from three commercial marijuana growing operations in Dunes City, a town of 1,316 people. The plans are stirring debate among residents about pot businesses sprouting between homes.

“I’ve convinced myself that this is growing pains for Dunes City, and that this is not going to be the last time that we’re going to have an issue that makes the city re-examine where it is and how it is, and how it provides services,” City Administrator Jamie Mills said. “That’s kind of where we are at right now.”

Like Creswell, Dunes City residents will vote on a commercial marijuana ban, though the ban wouldn’t apply to the three applications pending with the Oregon Liquor Control Commission. Creswell earlier this month reaffirmed a ban on pot businesses in the southern Lane County city. Dunes City residents will vote next November on whether to embrace or outlaw marijuana, a question other small cities around Oregon have struggled to answer, more than two years since the state legalized recreational pot.

To grow or not to grow

The ban would stop pot-growing and other marijuana-based businesses in the city just south of Florence on the Oregon Coast. It wouldn’t apply to the three planned pot growing operations because the property owners submitted applications to the OLCC before the Dunes City council tentatively approved the measure in September.

Dunes City doesn’t have a downtown or a commercial district. Instead, the city consists primarily of a collection of homes intermixed with woodland east of Highway 101, across from Jessie M. Honeyman Memorial State Park. Views of Woahink and Siltcoos lakes drive property values.

Most businesses in town are based on tourism.

“We have nine commercial operations, every single one of them is either an RV park or a fish lodge,” Mills said.

Quiet defines Dunes City, and opponents to marijuana growing in the city say that’s what they want to preserve. In their opinion, marijuana business will be smelly, noisy and attract crime — not a good fit for their neighborhoods.

“I cannot but believe that having that there will affect the value of a home,” said Berne Hill, a real estate broker and neighbor of one of the planned growing operations. “. I would not want to pay $350,000 to be next to a marijuana grow, simply because of the security,” she added.

The hopeful Dunes City pot growers contend that their businesses will blend in, and they say they have met city and state requirements. They are just waiting for the final approval from the OLCC.

Ross Day, the Portland-based attorney for the people pursuing pot growing in Dunes City, contends that marijuana, also known as cannabis, doesn’t attract crime.

“Cannabis is a crop just like any other crop — blueberries, lavender, hops,” he said. “It comes from the same family as hops. And we don’t notify neighbors when we are I’m going to grow wine grapes or garlic, or anything else. Why would we treat cannabis any different? Well, because it’s cannabis, that’s what people say. It’s a plant, just like every other plant God’s made, and we should be treating it the same way.”

Dunes City doesn’t have a police force, and its residents don’t pay municipal property taxes. Septic tanks typically are the most contentious issue, with many residents drawing their water from Woahink Lake.

But marijuana talk has become a daily part of Mills’ work routine as Dunes City’s primary official. Along with being city administrator, Mills is the city recorder and fills other posts for the city.

Each day she has come to expect up to 25 emails from the most vocal of the pot critics. Meanwhile, the attorney from the lead marijuana grower prefers she talks to him rather than his clients.

Dunes City, like other cities where residents locally voted against marijuana legalization in 2014, had an opportunity to ban marijuana without a public vote by the end of 2015. The city council didn’t.

The city also had the opportunity to ban pot by a ballot vote in November 2016. It didn’t.

Instead, Dunes City residents voted two-to-one to approve a city tax on marijuana sales, with 624 voting for the tax and 310 voting against the tax.

Even with tax approval, opponents to marijuana growing in Dunes City say the city didn’t seem like a place that would attract pot entrepreneurs. “I don’t think it occurred to anybody that marijuana is something that would happen here,” Mills said.

Dunes City is one of four Oregon cities so far with a marijuana ban on the November 2018 ballot. The other cities also are small — Culver in Central Oregon, and Haines and Sumpter in northeast Oregon.

Lane County has a dozen cities. Coburg and Junction City, as well as Creswell, have marijuana bans in place. Eugene, Springfield and seven other cities in the county — including Dunes City, for now — allow marijuana growing, processing and selling.

Unexpected grower

Valerie Cain-Mathis, a former California Department of Corrections officer, said she only considered trying marijuana once she became sick.

She said her ailments in recent years have included cancer and multiple sclerosis, and pot provides lasting relief. By growing marijuana, she wants to make more medicine for patients like her.

One of the marijuana growing operations proposed for Dunes City would be on property owned by Cain-Mathis, a patch of forestland uphill from Woahink Lake.

Getting approval has proved hard, though.

“It’s been an ordeal,” Cain-Mathis said.

Her sister, Patricia Smalley, owns the property next to her and also has ambitions of growing marijuana. And Smalley has a freshly constructed building for an indoor operation.

“Everything is ready,” Cain-Mathis said. “We are just waiting.”

The building looks like a house at first glance, but its lack of windows gives it away as something else. Signs on the door include the state-required warnings, including no on-site marijuana use and no minors.

The three growing operations in Dunes City would be linked by family and friendship. Dennis Smith — owner of Premium Choice Marijuana, a pot shop between a cafe and a hardware store in Florence — became Cain-Mathis’ pot provider when she moved to Oregon last year. They plan on being business partners.

Smith, who has the third pending OLCC application in for a Dunes City growing operation, is a marijuana connoisseur, Cain-Mathis said.

“He grows the gourmet stuff,” she said.

Smith declined to comment, referring questions to his attorney.

The indoor marijuana operation on Smalley’s land would start with 400 plants and three employees, Cain-Mathis said. Charcoal filters in the ventilation system would cut off the smell of marijuana, she added.

Cain-Mathis declined to say how much she has invested in the venture so far, saying it would be hard to fully tally.

She feels Dunes City residents should welcome her and her business partners because they are the “right people growing for the right reasons.”


Information from: The Register-Guard,