Sunday, August 23, 2015

Electrical Needs For a Marijuana Grow Operation

Above: Electrical lines at sunset in a northeast Olympia neighborhood off of Puget Street. 

By Janine Unsoeld

On Friday, August 21, Little Hollywood sat down with representatives of Puget Sound Energy to discuss the Olympia case involving a marijuana grow operation in an Olympia northeast neighborhood. PSE has been in contact with both customers involved in the dispute.

Puget Sound Energy is responsible for the utility connections to homes and businesses.
Amy Tousley, municipal liaison manager for Thurston County, and Bryan McConaughy, senior local government affairs representative, discussed what they knew about the case, answered questions, and explained their next steps.

Puget Sound Energy has told the City of Olympia that the repair work done on a line after three utility line fires was safe, and that PSE was continuing to monitor the condition of the line. PSE concluded that the line fire cause was due to the age of, or damage to, the line.

Tousley said she will give the Olympia city council an update on the situation at their September 1 meeting.

“Our business is having a safe system…and to work closely with cities and counties to see what we can do to help them,” said Tousley. 

Above: The transformer in question in a northeast Olympia neighborhood.

According to PSE, a PSE employee made a service call to Melinda Spencer’s house and her neighbor’s several months ago because Spencer’s neighbor asked if he could pay PSE to upgrade the transformer. The tenant indicated that he didn’t think the service line or transformer serving the home could support the equipment used in his marijuana grow operation.

That PSE employee reported seeing a large number of marijuana plants, much more than what would be considered as a collective grow. The tenant also said to the employee that he intended to expand his operation to a detached garage.

The tenant never followed through with paying to have a larger transformer installed, so the original transformer, which serves six homes on the street, is still in place. In addition, the service line, which is sized for residential electrical loads, continues to serve that property.

On August 15, a volt recording meter was installed on the Spencer’s house. It measures voltage and amperage. The levels were normal at the Spencer’s house, and well within what is called a “voltage swing,” determined to be 114 - 126 volts.

On Thursday, August 20, a volt meter was installed on the neighbor’s house in question. The results will be available next Wednesday, August 26. The volt meter is put on the transformer right on the live line to get the best data available to see if that transformer is overheating. The volt meter data will measure whether or not too much load is being pulled through the wire, and whether or not the wire is too small.

“The transformer is large enough but the wire may not be because of what may be pulled through,” said Tousley.

If an upgrade is needed and if the wire needs to be changed out, then it is the customer’s responsibility. If the customer is a renter and the renter leaves, the property owner would bear that cost.

“Our lineman was taken to a detached garage and was told there might be an expansion into that structure. Whether or not that has already occurred, they have already disclosed their intention, and that would very much require more electricity,” said Tousley. 

“PSE is taking action on this. We are doing the monitoring and testing to make sure we provide ourselves the best information so we can find out what the next step is, otherwise, we’re just going to be making a lot of speculation based on what we think might be occurring….This is an issue we’ll be seeing more of throughout our region. It’s probably something we need to put together a team and say, ok, this is going to be happening…how are we going to address this? Do we encourage cities to add some code component, or request that they do, or defer to the cities and say it’s the cities’ responsibility? We need to figure that out….” said McConaughy.

Tousley said that the repair work that was done after the line fires may look a little like undone shoestrings, but its appearance is a standard method of splicing and repairing of the line.

Marijuana operations aren’t the only type of business that may draw more electricity. Beauty shops, automotive shops, small internet service providers, and radio stations are other examples commonly seen within a residential area. PSE has different customer classifications based on usage, but it is up the city to determine if a business is taking place within a home.

Asked how often PSE is responding to cases similar to this one, Tousley said it is happening more and more because they are wondering more often why their equipment is giving way.

“We’re becoming very familiar with this on the industrial side of the pot growing operations. Because they have to go through proper permitting to become an actual facility, we are usually brought into the loop earlier because some of these larger operations are 200,000 square feet, like the one in Lacey. There’s going to be a need for a couple megawatts of power. We actually have a special person inside PSE that works with these official businesses to help them through the process and make sure the load in our system is prepared to handle that...,said McConaughy.

As for the non-industrial side of the operation, McConaughy said, We’re having to address a whole new scenario…(it’s) new case law, a brand new legal arena.” 

Above: Of course, fire was the first source of light, as the Olympic Mountain Family Fire Dancers demonstrated Sunday night at the Love our Local Fest event in Olympia's northeast neighborhood.

For more information about this case, go to Little Hollywood, and type key words into the search engine.

Olympia Dispute over Marijuana Operation Raises Questions

Above: Medical Marijuana

By Janine Unsoeld

Questions are being raised in a community issue involving medical marijuana, code and law enforcement, he-said-she-said neighbor disputes, and three utility line fires that involve Puget Sound Energy. Throw in a breakdown in communication and you have a messy situation.

Little Hollywood has learned that the Thurston County Narcotics Task Force did what is called a “knock and talk” at a marijuana operation in an Olympia northeast neighborhood on July 7. 

The unannounced visit to the home was in response to a neighbor complaint by Melinda Spencer, who alleges that her neighbor is operating a commercial marijuana grow operation.

In a telephone interview on Wednesday with narcotics task force captain Dave Johnson and the detective who actually visited the home, both said that the tenants were cooperative and invited law enforcement inside. The tenants showed the proper paperwork for a collective grow. Captain Johnson said that the residents gave the detectives a tour of the entire property and it was found to be in compliance with current medical marijuana law.

Captain Johnson said that in the last three years since the passage of state legislation, they have dealt with a lot of complaints about grow operations.

“The law is going to change next July, and it’s going to get cleaned up a little bit, but until then, it’s a Catch-22 law, and not easy to deal with,” said Johnson.

Collective grows are not required to register with the state or local authorities, so police have no idea how many are in operation, and neighbors and concerned neighbors wonder where to turn to for information and assistance.

Utility Line Fires and Communication Timeline

The information about the narcotic task force’s “knock and talk” was never provided to Melinda Spencer, who complained about her neighbor’s operation at Tuesday night’s Olympia city council meeting in public testimony.

City manager Steve Hall mentioned it during council comments and regretted the lack of communication with Spencer.

Spencer said that she believes that three recent utility line fires, one occurring as recently as July 30 near her home, were caused by the grow operation in her northeast neighborhood. She says that her neighbor in question has repeatedly and openly referred to his operation as a wholesale grow for sale to medical dispensaries.

Spencer began communicating her concerns with the city and other authorities in the third week of June, before the fires.

In a June 29 email, the date of the first utility line fire, Chris Grabowski, lead city code enforcement officer, told Spencer and her husband that their concern had been forwarded to the Thurston County Narcotics Task Force, saying this was not a city zoning or code enforcement issue, but a law enforcement issue.

That same day, a sergeant at the Olympia Police Department said that the task force will make contact with the residents when time permits and determine if there are any law violations. Spencer responded to Grabowski, and thanked him for getting her concern pointed in the right direction. 

Another utility line fire occurred in early July.

Spencer continued to do research and contacted Puget Sound Energy. She also wrote the city attorney on July 8, specifically detailing her concerns and to ask if the operation has the proper permits. Spencer says she never got a response from the city attorney.

A third utility line fire occurred July 30.

Spencer and several other neighbors co-wrote a letter on August 1 to the property owner informing him that they have authorized their insurance agents to pursue damages against him if any activities occurring at his property harm persons or property in the vicinity. She sent copies to several city officials, including the fire chief, the police chief, and city attorney.

Spencer wrote an email to Olympia city council on August 13. She says she did not receive a response from any councilmembers. That same day, she contacted Puget Sound Energy to provide details about the grow operation so it could better evaluate if those activities contributed to the service line fires.

On Tuesday, August 18, Spencer felt compelled to speak publicly about the situation.

Communication from Code Enforcement

On Wednesday, the day after she spoke at city council, Chris Grabowski, the city’s lead code enforcement officer, sent Spencer an email providing details about the Thurston County Narcotics Task Force visit, but did not provide her the date. That information was provided to her by Little Hollywood.

Grabowski said in the email that detectives counted 50 plants on site.
“At the time of the inspection, that was slightly above the maximum 45 allowed, but under the new laws now in effect, the amount has gone up to 60 plants.  (The detective) told me that the grow was a legal one, and that (the task force) had no plans to go back and re-inspect as there was no indication of any illegal activity,” wrote Grabowski.

In an interview, Spencer says she appreciated the email, but it came a little too late.

“No one ever closed the loop with us,” Spencer said.

“This really is such a gray area and I feel pretty whipped and overexposed by this whole situation. I did get some staff to focus on this issue and follow up with me -- with prodding. I asked a lot of questions that were never definitively answered…but what makes me bitter is the big lapse by whoever should have let us know that the task force had done its job and made its conclusions. My emails after the inspection on July 7 should have reminded someone at city hall that crucial information had never been sent to me....” said Spencer to Little Hollywood late this week.

Spencer says she would have preferred to not have spoken publicly, nor ask for media attention, but felt she had no choice. Spencer still has concerns regarding the electrical safety of her home, and other homes on her street.

The Other Side of the Story

Little Hollywood has spoken several times with the resident at the address in question to get his side of this story.

The resident, who does not want to be named, says he is a medical marijuana user. He says he is a retired engineer on Social Security and disability. He says he has had brain surgery and uses the medicine to prevent seizures. He says he has been very up front with his neighbors about his collective garden, and gets along well with many of them. He is upset with his neighbor, Melinda Spencer, who he feels has been harassing him. He says the Thurston County Narcotics Task Force has come to his home twice and he has showed them the proper paperwork.  He admits he put about 50 plants outside during a recent heatwave. The air conditioning runs fulltime because he says marijuana is a fickle plant and needs to stay at a cool temperature. He says his crop is grown organically and he does not use chemicals. He did some work on the home for the owners late last year and says they are aware of his collective garden. He says the house used to be the worst looking one on the block.

“.…I’ve only been doing this since November. This is an expensive thing to do if you’re going to do it right. I’ve got nothing to hide. There’s no 100 plants. This hurts…it’s life changing stuff….” he said.

He currently has an option to buy the home, but now feels like he needs to break his contract and leave the neighborhood. He says he has retained an attorney.

The tenant says he knows of at least seven grow operations within four blocks of his house.

Collective and Cooperative Marijuana Garden Law

A collective grow is not a business, since the intent of the marijuana grow, under current Washington State law, is for the members of the collective to pool their resources to grow medicinal plants for their own consumption. 

According to the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (WSLCB), a “collective garden” means qualifying patients share the responsibility for acquiring and supplying the resources required to produce and process cannabis for medical use such as, for example, a location for a collective garden; equipment, supplies, and labor necessary to plant, grow, and harvest cannabis; cannabis plants, seeds, and cuttings; and equipment, supplies, and labor necessary for proper construction, plumbing, wiring, and ventilation of a garden of cannabis plants.

Starting on July 1, 2016, collective gardens will be eliminated, but will allow for the creation of medical marijuana “cooperatives” that may be formed by up to four qualifying patients or designated providers.

Washington State Governor Jay Inslee signed new legislation in July that will make marijuana laws more restrictive. The new law repeals RCW 69.51A.140, which granted cities and counties the authority to adopt and enforce requirements related to medical marijuana, including zoning.

Rules regarding marijuana cooperatives state that they cannot be located within one mile of marijuana retailers; the location must be registered with the WSLCB; they must be located in a domicile of one of the participants; are limited to one cooperative per tax parcel; and may grow up to the total number of plants authorized for each patient, a maximum of 60 plants. Qualifying patients or designated providers may only participate in one cooperative, and are subject to inspection by the WSLCB and law enforcement. The WSLCB may adopt rules relating to security and traceability requirements for cooperatives.

Above: The northeast Olympia neighborhood rocked tonight at the Love our Local Fest on Bethel and San Francisco Avenue. DBST played funkadelic rock.

For more information about this case, go to Little Hollywood, and type key words into the search engine.

Tanasse Ends Olympia Mixed Use Project

Above: Citing cash constraints, John and Tiffany Tanasse have ended their effort to build their mixed use building on State Street near downtown Olympia. 

By Janine Unsoeld

After years of planning and personal sacrifice, John and Tiffany Tanasse have ended their effort to build their mixed use building near downtown Olympia. 

Citing financial constraints, local chiropractor John Tanasse warns others in a similar situation to be prepared to bring a whole lot of cash to the table.

The project involved designers, architects, construction companies, city planning officials, and banking representatives. The Tanasse’s also surmounted the objections of the nearby historic Bigelow neighborhood association last October by prevailing in a hearing examiner case, which allowed the couple to build their modern design, urban living combination of home and business.

Bigelow neighborhood residents were upset with the building’s proposed design on the long vacant lot at 924 State Avenue, saying it was not in keeping with standards or the historic nature of the area.

State Street, however, is not part of the historic Bigelow neighborhood boundary. It is considered to be a high density corridor by both the City of Olympia and the Thurston Regional Planning Council.

On Saturday, the couple issued an open letter, reprinted below:

Hello Friends, Neighbors, and Community Members,

We are writing to let others know that we have decided not to build the Tanasse Mixed Use Building at 924 State Ave. 

We arrived at this decision with great difficulty given all of the challenges that we had previously overcome and all of the community support we have received. Ultimately, we embarked on this journey to simplify our lives and make a difference along the way. We have come to a point where the cost of the project makes simplifying very complex. Unfortunately, with all of the delays, we entered the perfect storm of a hot commercial construction market that has moved our project beyond our comfort zone, which was a moderate stretch from the outset.

We apologize that we were unable to finish what we started but hope we have sparked and added to the ongoing interest and conversation regarding a new way forward in Olympia.

We want to personally thank Gretchen Van Dusen, for her friendship and splendid design, Mike Swarthout of Kaufman Construction for his professionalism, Garner Miller of MSGS architects, Paul Strawn of Riley Jackson Real Estate, Catherine McCoy and entire team at the City of Olympia, Karen Messmer for her tireless quest to make Olympia a livable city for all, Duane Edwards, landscape architect, Kevin Ekar of Heritage Bank, Chuck Hoeschen of South Sound Bank, Nick Benzschawel of Washington Business Bank, and for all community members, for and against, who engaged in vigorous debate over this and city direction.

The road ahead has a positive plan B that will allow us to continue to thrive and provide excellent expanded chiropractic services in a new location, as we have long since outgrown our current location.

Thank you for understanding.

John and Tiffany Tanasse

In an interview with Little Hollywood, John Tanasse described the frustrating experience and their final breaking point.

“Of course, we started the process with many conversations with our bank to explore our readiness as a business and as a borrower. We got the go ahead and commenced on a long journey of check boxes, some easy, and others quite difficult.

“Part of the puzzle included selling our personal residence, then selling a condo we had acquired for our parents, and then, finally, the sale of our office. And while the appeal delayed us a building season, to be fair, so did the sale of our office that did not sell until this past June.

“Meanwhile the building clock was ticking with the final details of the project and financial package coming together as expected, except for a moving budget target related to an increasingly tight commercial building market that saw enormous increases in materials and labor costs regionally.

“This squeezed us into a corner for a commitment that was ultimately beyond our break point. We were positioned to handle the increase, but it changed all available financing formulas for an odd ball building in terms of finding comparison sales to reasonably meet appraisal value, as no matches existed from here to Seattle.

“In other words, our building, having both owner occupied residential and business, failed to conform to the typical loan products available, leaving us in a position of needing to cash roll a much larger portion than we were prepared or willing to, compared to when we started….”

Tanasse said it was this need for cash that ultimately led them to reluctantly shut the project down. A bulldozer has been seen in recent weeks leveling the site, work which was dependent upon the dry season.

“….We were unable to see this coming. This should serve as a heads up to others interested in this…and for the city that has to incorporate more mixed use projects as a part of its comprehensive plan….There are severely limited bank products available to assist with this type of project,” said Tanasse.

Former Olympia city councilmember Karen Messmer, who stays active with city land use issues, is mentioned as a supporter in Tanasse’s letter.

“This project had the right elements for new development - housing above a business, on a transit corridor, close to downtown.  And, this is a well-respected locally owned business and a wonderful family. I am sad that the circumstances did not work out for this project to move forward,” said Messmer.

For more information about the Tanasse’s project, go to Little Hollywood,, and type key words into the search engine.

Above: The Tanasse property at 924 State Street today.