The home in the orderly Kentley Hills subdivision of Highlands Ranch — where the average sales price is $587,000 — looks like many others on the street, except for a few details:
There are rarely cars in the driveway.
On garbage day, no …
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On garbage day, no trashcans are set out.
The grass in the front yard is browning.
Trucks visit in the middle of the night.
And a smell of marijuana seeps from the house on Bentwood Circle into the neighborhood.
“It's unbearable,” said James, a neighbor who asked that his last name not be used because he said he fears for his family's safety. “For my kids, it's uncomfortable to play outside.”
The home — about a half mile from Heritage Elementary School — was reported to the Douglas County Sheriff's Office in April because of the continuous odor and traffic in and out of the house. It is one of 20 homes in Douglas County reported to the sheriff's office during the first five months of 2016 for complaints related to marijuana cultivation.
“We have this going on in all parts of Douglas County — they aren't confined to one area,” said Chief Deputy Steve Johnson of the Douglas County Sheriff's Office.
The number of complaints about marijuana cultivation in the county jumped from 24 in 2014 to 45 in 2015. This is one reason the sheriff's office is working with the Douglas County Board of Commissioners to adopt an ordinance regulating marijuana grows in unincorporated parts of the county.
The ordinance, which is scheduled for an Aug. 9 public hearing, focuses on several key areas: where marijuana can be grown; plant limits per home; a ban on compressed, flammable gas and flammable liquids; the smell or odor produced; and growing at a rental property.
The key element, though, is the limit on the number of plants allowed at a single residence.
“It's something that will give us the opportunity to temper a situation that is grossly out of control right now,” Johnson said of the ordinance.
In 2012, Colorado voters passed Amendment 64, which legalized marijuana for recreational use and home-growing for adults 21 years of age and older. It allows an individual to grow six marijuana plants at a time in his or her home for personal use.
But state medical marijuana laws laid out in 2000 when Amendment 20 legalized the use of pot for medical reasons, allows a caregiver to grow up to 99 plants depending on the number of patients and physician prescriptions, according to Mark Salley of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which regulates medical marijuana.
As of May, Colorado had 106,066 active medical marijuana patients, and during that month 235 physicians recommended medical marijuana for active patients, according to data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Severe pain is the documented condition for 92.8 percent of patients.
The ordinance being considered by Douglas County commissioners would cap the number of plants allowed at any state of maturity to 12 plants per household, whether the growing is done by patients, caregivers or for personal use.
Loopholes in Colorado medical marijuana laws have allowed people to home-grow marijuana for illegal profit under the guise of medical use, Johnson said. This is an issue facing counties and municipalities throughout the state.
“One of the frustrations for us as law enforcement is when we walk away from a basement that's been converted into a grow operation and they're hiding behind a medical marijuana card,” Johnson said. “Is there a chance that they're harvesting it, packaging it and shipping it out of state for financial reward?”
The ordinance, Johnson said, would lessen the chance of illegal grows in the county and make the community safer.
“This is a public safety problem,” Johnson said, adding that when a grow house is converted haphazardly, it poses a risk to everyone in the area.
A big risk is fire, which can occur if modifications have been made to the electrical system in the house, and if large amounts of chemicals or butane gas are used in confined spaces without proper ventilation, he said. This is often the case when processing hash oil from marijuana plants.
Such a fire broke out July 25 in Nederland in a home where a mix of chemicals and fuel from hash oil sparked an explosion, according to the Nederland Fire Department.
Other safety concerns, Johnson said, are risks of robbery and home invasion.
“Where there's illegal activity, there are illegal crimes that occur,” he said, adding that it also puts neighbors of those illegal operations at risk.
Both Johnson and James mentioned a recent home invasion in Golden as an example.
On the night of May 16, police say three male suspects knocked on the door of a home with the intent to steal drugs and $10,000. But they entered the wrong house and homeowner Jesse Swift, a middle school teacher, was stabbed during the encounter.
“I don't want that happening here,” James said. “There's a constant fear factor. I'm always on the alert. My wife is constantly scared.”
An initial investigation of the Kentley Hills marijuana grow operation showed that it is legal and in compliance, with paperwork allowing up to 99 plants to be grown for medical use, Johnson said. At the time of the check in April, the sheriff's office reported 60 plants growing inside the house.
It takes 90 days for a marijuana plant to grow to maturity, which depending on the strand and growing process can grow up to 6 feet, Johnson said. Each plant can produce a pound of marijuana.
Johnson said he could not say when the medical marijuana permit for the home was issued because of medical privacy laws.
According to hotpads.com, a rental website, the home was listed as a rental in February. In April, the first complaints were filed with the sheriff's office.
James has lived in Highlands Ranch since 2001 and the last four years with his family in their Kentley Hills home on a street filled with families and friendly neighbors.
During the day, he rarely sees anyone at the “grow house,” James said. But in the middle of the night, trucks pull in with groups of people for a couple of hours, before speedily leaving the neighborhood.
His 11-year-old daughter, who likes to swing in the front yard and take her cat out to play in the grass, said the smell coming from the home gives her a headache and a cough, which makes her not want to go outside anymore.
“It makes me sick,” James said. “I never thought of the possibility of a grow operation in my neighborhood.”
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