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The medical marijuana growing facility that is proposed for placement near the community of Waukeenah received a boost last week, with the Jefferson County Planning Commission voting to recommend its approval.
The recommendation, which now goes to the Jefferson County Commission for final action, followed nearly an hour of discussion, during which a consultant for the applicant made a presentation on the proposal and answered questions about it, as did Planning Attorney Scott Shirley and Fred Beshears of Simpson Nurseries, who is peripherally involved with the project.
Shirley noted that Trulieve, which is behind the proposal, is a vertically integrated operation (meaning that it encompasses every aspect of the process, “from seed to sale”), and is also among the first and foremost medical marijuana players in the state. He underscored that Trulieve was a state licensed and regulated facility that was permitted to grow medical marijuana. Shirley also noted that although marijuana remains illegal under federal law, it is unlikely that the federal government would act against Florida or Jefferson County, as a mechanism in the federal budget prevents prosecution of states that allow the use of medicinal marijuana.
Sean Marston, an engineer with Urban Catalyst Consultants in Tallahassee, which is representing Truelieve, gave an overview of the project.
Marston said the facility was slated for an 80-acre property that is zoned agricultural and located off U.S. 27, about a half a mile east of the Waukeenah Highway.
“This is a growth facility only,” Marston said. “The manufacturing will be done in Gadsden County.”
He said the project would be accomplished in four phases and would entail the construction of three buildings of 250,000 sq. feet each, plus other smaller structures. He said 150 people would be hired in the first phase and another 150 in the second, making for a total of 300 employees.
The marijuana plants, Marston said, would be grown indoors, the operation would run 24/7, and the facility would be highly secured, employing both surveillance cameras and security personnel.
He said that the environmental and cultural surveys of the land had yielded no findings, other than the existence of a small wetlands toward the rear of the property, which would be appropriately addressed.
He said a substation would supply the power, the Jefferson Communities Water System would provide the water for drinking and fire protection, and septic tanks would be used initially, with the understanding that the facility would eventually connect to the City of Monticello sewer system. A stormwater retention pond, he said, would handle the runoff.
Marston said a traffic study had indicated that the facility would have minimal impact on U.S. 27, that noise also would be minimal, and that what odor the operation generated would be mitigated by the use of charcoal filters in the exhaust system.
A couple of planners expressed concern about the possibility of employees pilfering products from the facility. Beshears assured them it wouldn't happen. He said employees would undergo state-administered background checks, cameras would surveil every room, and security personnel would patrol the facility.
“Every few months we catch someone pinching something and they're gone,” Beshears said, speaking of the operation in Gadsden County. As for the concern about potential noise, Beshears said, “The noise is mostly from the air-conditioning units. You can't hear it 50 feet away.”
And the odor?
He conceded that cannabis plants effused a mild odor, but it was no more potent than any other living plant and nothing that was overwhelming.
“There is some odor, but it won't knock you down,” Beshears said. “Unless you're looking for it, you won't smell it.”
Odors, moreover, would be vented skyward by the exhaust system, he said.
A neighboring property owner wondered about the kind of buffer that would be put up to shield the facility from sight.
Marston gave a detailed account of the types of trees and shrubs that would be planted and the spacing between each to ensure adequate cover. Beshears, moreover, offered to work with neighboring property owner to ensure the buffering was to their satisfaction.
A question came up of how much the jobs would pay?
Beshears said the pay would start at $10 to $11 per hour and go up from there. Never mind that management and office positions would pay more. He said the greenhouse jobs would require a level of technical skill, as it would be a high-tech operation with robots handling parts of the more manual and mundane tasks. But the skill level required wasn't anything that anyone with average intelligence couldn't learn, he said.
“I think anyone with a half a brain can learn this,” Beshears said. “We plan to train the people. If they have the willingness and some intelligence, they can do it.”
He said the reason for moving part of the operation here was the Gadsden County operation employed between 800 and 900 people and “we're running out of employees.”
Another neighboring property owner worried that the facility might introduce an undesirable element into the area – people who would attempt to enter the grounds to steal the products.
Beshears assured the individual that it wouldn't happen. He said a 12-foot-high chain-link fence with barbwire atop it would surround the property, plus the facility would be guarded by two officers during daytimes and one during nights. The plants, what's more, would be inside secured greenhouses, he said.
After hearing the presentations and having their questions satisfied, the nine planners voted unanimously to recommend the project for approval, both as a major development and a special exception.
The Jefferson County Commission could take up the project for consideration as early as Thursday, June 6.