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Penrose’s new cash crop

Brett Levin | Flickr
The greenhouses on Colo. 115 is part of the nine grow operations in Penrose.
The greenhouses on Colo. Hwy. 115 is part of the nine grow operations in Penrose.

Founded in the 1860s, numerous pioneers flocked to Beaver Creek, where they settled down to live the good life.

As time passed, settlers dug irrigation ditches and planted fruit orchards. Over the years, Penrose flourished with its apples, melons, beets, tomatoes, string beans, spinach, squash, peas and pumpkins.

But today, Penrose seems to be cashing in on a different kind of crop.

With the passage of Amendment 64, speculators have rushed to the area, hoping to get in on another type of industry for the 21st century by selling their product in the Denver market along with other major cities in northern Colorado.

According to statistics, nine marijuana grow facilities are currently operating in the Penrose area with another five planned. The applicants have the permits, but have not pursued operation yet. Of the three medical marijuana centers that are operating in the town, one of them is already up for sale.

“The grow houses that have permission, but have never pursued operation received permission at the very beginning,” said Fremont County Commissioner Debbie Bell. “I doubt any of those will ever end up in operation, since we banned all recreational marijuana.”

Fremont County Commissioner Debbie Bell
Fremont County Commissioner Debbie Bell

When the residents voted to legalize medical marijuana, the commissioners decided not to write rules and regulations for marijuana facilities because the state said it would regulate it.

“It turned out we were wrong. It turned into a very big deal. We had no idea Penrose was about to become the mecca for marijuana that it eventually became,” Bell said. “We finally realized how many growth operations there were and how many more were getting ready to apply to the state. We may have come to the table a little bit too late, (but) we realized there was a problem and we did the very best we could to address it.”

One of the things that shocked the commissioners she said is that once the state voted in recreational marijuana, they thought medical marijuana would become obsolete.

“If anyone could go in and buy it, why would they have to go to the doctor, get a card and have it tracked,” she asked. “(Instead) marijuana for medicinal purposes just exploded in Penrose.”

About that time, the commissioners began to hear from residents complaining about the industry so the board invited the growers and the residents to a public meeting to talk about the issues.

“We talked about what the problems were, which basically boils down to two–the scent and the light,” Bell said.

Those were the two biggest issues. While having the meeting, she said she asked the growers about medical marijuana dying out when recreational marijuana came in, but learned it was the exact opposite.

“The growers themselves said, ‘we are all speculating that eventually Fremont County will allow medical growers to transform into recreational growers and that’s why we’re all here,'” Bell said. “Penrose seems to be the perfect spot for people to come in. There’s not abundant water there, but marijuana actually takes less water than some other kinds of greenhouses. The flower farm that used to be in Penrose took much more water than the marijuana grow house that’s there now. There’s abundant land (and) so much sunshine. The land is relatively cheap (in Penrose). People were finding different ways to get their hands on water.”

The growers obtained water from a variety of sources, she said. Some of them have ditch rights; some have commercial taps with the Penrose Water District and some have wells while others are trucking water in from other places.

“Water is something we can’t control,” Bell said. “Every bit of water in Colorado is controlled by someone, some entity or those with water rights, but the county doesn’t control any of that. We don’t get a say if someone applies to the Penrose Water District for a commercial water tap. It’s up to the Penrose Water District to say yes or no.”

However, Penrose Water District Manager Ron Gasser said a moratorium was placed on all commercial water taps several years ago.

In the meantime, the commissioners continued to work on rules and regulations for medical marijuana prior to a public hearing in September 2013.

At that point, the board placed a permanent ban in Fremont County for every type of recreational marijuana.

“There’s no growth, no sales, no products, no testing,” Bell said. “None of those things are allowed. That’s just in the unincorporated areas of Fremont County. Cities are allowed to do whatever they would like to do.”

In addition, the board placed new rules and regulations for all medical marijuana this past June and some of the growers said the new requirements would put them out of business, she said.

“We haven’t seen that happen yet,” Bell added. “I have an idea that some of their neighbors would not be sorry to see that happen.”

Even with all the marijuana facilities in Penrose, she said it is not the new industry for the community.

“Penrose is still a very diverse place,” Bell said. “There are a lot of other things that go on out there. We still have lots of apple orchards. Canon Marine is located out there and doing very, very well. There’s a variety of different kinds of shops and people that hand make things and some of them are doing very well.”

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