Otero County Commissioners on Monday unanimously approved a special use permit application from Keith Wiggins to grow hemp in an industrial zone despite the Planning Commission's recommendation to deny the request.

Members of the Planning Commission voted April 15 to recommend the county not approve the permit after Fowler residents expressed opposition to the project.

Susan Morris and Kevin Hardy, who live near the land in question, expressed concerns about the hemp producing strong, offensive odors.

Land Use Administrator Lex Nichols established at the April 15 meeting that special use permits can be issued in cases of "non-conforming use."

Wiggins' lot had been used for agricultural purposes, primarily tomatoes, under previous ownership prior to the current land code adopted in 1976 that segments land within the county into agricultural, industrial and residential zones.

Nichols said at Monday's BOCC meeting that other residents within the industrial zone own animals, such as cows, goats and horses, that would not be permitted without non-conforming use or special use permits.

Wiggins currently uses a warehouse next to the lot to store and dry hemp. He contested that hemp only produces a strong odor when it is drying, not when it is still growing in the field.

Nichols said the Planning board had researched the county's files to determine if the non-conforming agricultural use permits had ever been rescined.

"We could not find that," he told the BOCC Monday.

Nichols added that he was trying to pay attention to both Wiggins' and opposing residents' perspectives, that he wants to be fair in giving people the opportunity to utilize the land, while also protecting the rights of others.

Wiggins said he and his partner plan to grow three different strains of hemp, primarily to harvest the CBD oil produced by the plant, and that he was told one of the strains actually produces a pine scent as opposed to a standard hemp odor.

Wiggins added that he has an Master's degree in agriculture from Colorado State University and an undergraduate degree in textile engineering.

"This is not something that we just decided we would do on a whim," said Wiggins.

Wiggins said that he spoke with Kevin Hardy, one resident who had voiced concerns about hemp being grown in the industrial zone, and promised to do everything he could to manage the smells coming from the warehouse in which he dries his hemp. Wiggins said he keep doors closed and makes sure that ventilation is properly utilized.

"I had the chance to speak with Mr. Wiggins previously," said Hardy on Monday. "I actually had a really good conversation. There's a lot to learn. He made a suggestion that I may not necessarily have all the facts, and I think that's perfectly accurate. He's been doing this for years. I certainly can't compete with a Master's degree in agriculture. I think there's a lot of conversation to be had."

Hardy described his position on the matter to be "middle of the road."

In addition to his concerns of strong smells coming from the would-be hemp field, Hardy said the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment had research that concernes him.

"We're in the very beginning of an industry where we're attempting to figure out what's really going on," he said. "If you recognize and acknowledge through the CDPHE that hemp or, quite frankly, any cannabis plant, either hemp or marijuana, as it grows to maturity and starts to bud out, the terpenes within the plant begin to elevate, and this is where it starts to emit a level of odor."

Hardy said the CDPHE identifies terpenes found in hemp to be "volatile organic compounds" that, in combination with other air pollutants, can create what is called a ground level ozone when combined with high temperatures and sunshine.

On CDPHE's website, on a page dedicated to air quality and the environmental impacts of hemp, it's stated:

"Growing cannabis emits highly reactive volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Marijuana Infused Product (MIP) facilities also emit VOCs from solvent extraction processes.

"Both types of VOCs from the cannabis industry contribute to ozone formation in Denver's ozone nonattainment area. We have recommended best management practices for both grow and MIP facilities to reduce their air quality impacts."

Hardy was wary of what the potential loss of air quality could mean for youth and elderly residents.

County commissioners ultimately approved the special use permit under the condition that three terms are met.

"One is the performance standards of an industrial zone," said Commissioner Keith Goodwin. "Number two is also meeting all the health department regulations, of which there is air quality and a variety of other things. And then what we need to do is review it on an annual basis to see if all of that is taking place."

Goodwin said that in similar cases in the past, the county could relax annual reviews if conditions are consistently met and they do not receive any complaints.

cburney@ljtdmail.com