LONGMONT, Colo. – The investor saw potential in the scrubby 67 acres tucked away amid multimillion dollar homes: He would turn the land into a vast pot farm and capitalize on the booming medical marijuana industry.
But Scott Mullner, a city councilman from Laramie, Wyo., infuriated his Colorado neighbors with his plan to place a marijuana farm in the midst of their idyllic Northern Colorado countryside.
They say the project will damage property values and attract more unwanted attention than the previous business at the location — an organic egg farm.
"Nobody is going to come out and steal a chicken," said Lance Messinger, 56, who lives less than a mile from the proposed marijuana site. "So it was pretty benign to the neighborhood, is what I'm saying."
Despite a flurry of e-mails and calls from residents opposed to the idea, Boulder County commissioners decided against holding a public hearing on the issue on Tuesday, allowing Mullner's application to proceed.
The county banned medical marijuana growing operations in agricultural areas in June but Mullner was able to get his application in before that. Commissioners said they had to abide by the rules at the time.
Mullner still must proceed through the rest of the regulatory process and opponents say they'll continue the fight.
"We're going to keep working on it, we're going to make it difficult for them and we're going to grow our numbers. It's unconscionable, I cannot believe that they did that," said resident Nancy Peters, 62, one of 40 opponents who attended the meeting.
In addition to upsetting the locals, Mullner's plan is raising questions about the future of growing medical pot in Colorado, one of 14 states where it is legal. D.C. also allows marijuana for medical use.
One question is whether out-of-state investors can profit from the state-regulated industry. Under state law, Mullner can't grow the marijuana because he's not a Colorado resident. But if his request is approved, he could make a profit by selling or leasing the land to someone who is eligible, or he could move to Colorado, wait two years to become eligible, then grow it himself.
New state rules that went into effect this year state that a grower can supply only one dispensary. But, if the farm is divided into subplots, each serving a different dispensary business, it could theoretically serve many, said Brian Vicente, executive director of Sensible Colorado, a medical marijuana patients' group.
Dispensaries have a Wednesday deadline to meet a state requirement that they're growing 70 percent of the marijuana they sell, and industry watchers see a potential for subdivided farms supplying pot shops.
"I think this is the beginning of marijuana being treated more like a legitimate agriculture product," said Vicente.
The proposed pot farm would be unprecedented in terms of its size and wide-open nature, even by national standards.
In New Mexico and Washington state, for example, growing operations are secretly located. In California, the locales of growing operations are not publicly disclosed. The exception is the city of Oakland, which has approved a plan to authorize large-scale pot cultivation beginning in January, but the operations would be in industrial, not residential, areas.
While Colorado has hundreds of medical marijuana plots, most of them are indoors in warehouses or in the grower's basement, said Jeff Gard, a medical marijuana attorney in Boulder.
"This will be the first one that will be out in the open for everyone to see," Gard said.
That doesn't set well with the people who built their dream houses in the countryside about 40 miles north of Denver, Messinger said. The area offers small lakes and homes and land surrounded by white wooden fences. Residents grow alfalfa and sunflowers and advertise the sale of hay.
Those who have written or called county officials are concerned that a marijuana farm will disrupt their tranquility and make them vulnerable to crime.
Mullner did not return repeated messages left at his Laramie city office. He previously told local newspapers that having the land designated to grow marijuana was an opportunity he couldn't pass up.
"It's the highest and best use as far as farming goes," Mullner told the Boulder Daily Camera.
For his plan to go through, Mullner still has to submit a lighting plan and provide an example of a proposed steel entrance gate. And he must agree not to use the five buildings on the property for housing or retail sales. Even then there's no guarantee that Mullner's plan will go forward. He must meet local regulations for marijuana growth and some of those aren't even in place yet, said Commissioner Will Toor.
The commissioners' office said Tuesday existing rules will restrict any growing operations on the rural land to the existing buildings on the property. While the operation would still be outdoors and visible for everyone to see, the marijuana would have to be grown indoors.
Counties across Colorado are still grappling with how to regulate growing operations, said Eric Bergman, policy and research supervisor with Colorado Counties Inc., with issues ranging from law enforcement monitoring to taxation to fire mitigation.
The uncertainly of how it would all work is unnerving to the residents nearby, specially not knowing who will ultimately be in charge of the growing operation.
"You don't know who's going to run it," said neighbor Messinger. "It could be a legitimate business operation like Wal-Mart or it could be the Hell's Angels."