BILLINGS — The former Y Stop gas station in Roberts is the new home of Mountain Organics marijuana dispensary. That's not the problem - recreational sales have been legal in Carbon County since Jan. 1. The problem for many in town lies 100 feet across Highway 212 at the Roberts school.
"There are some things you see, and they stick out as a sore thumb. You think, 'That’s wrong,'" said school Superintendent Alex Ator.
When Ator first heard in June that the dispensary was going in, he immediately assumed that was illegal. After all, the law states that the Montana Department of Revenue cannot license a shop if it is within 500 feet of a school. But the second part of the law says it also needs to be on the same street.
"We are on 106 Maple," Ator said, "and they are on another street across the highway."
The measurement is taken from the main doors of the buildings. So whether they’re 500 feet away is irrelevant because they don’t share the same street address. So legally, Mountain Organics has every right to be there.
"The Cannabis Control Division and the Montana Department of Revenue have been out here since Day 1, long before we opened," said Mountain Organics owner Robert Carson. "All the checks were checked."
Carson owns and operates the dispensary. He’s been a grower in Billings since January 2020, operating a delivery model until moving into this building, his first and only storefront.
"It’s been a struggle really," Carson said of his time in the business. "I'm happy to break even every month, just to keep the lights on."
Carson can't afford Billings’ rapidly rising rent prices, so when he heard about the space from a friend, he jumped on it, with the caveat that he also fix up and reopen the gas station. He said he’s spent $30,000 renovating the building so far.
"The permits are filed. I'm just waiting to hear back," Carson said. "Accounts are already set up with Coca-Cola and other vendors. As soon as I can, the doors will open for that gas station."
A Roberts school employee started a petition protesting the dispensary's location. As of publish date, it had gathered 272 signatures. The 2020 U.S. Census listed Roberts with a population of 299.
Ator says he really became disheartened in January, when Carson put up two flags advertising the business directly across from the school’s playground.
"When you sit at bottom of our slide, you see two long flags about 15 feet tall stacked on top of each other that say dispensary," he said.
"I did learn about that concern at the commissioners office this morning," Carson said, "and I took those signs down as I got back to town after I learned about that concern."
Carson’s biggest frustration through the whole process has been the lack of communication. He said no one has come into his store voicing their concerns.
"Not a single person, no. I didn’t know about this until Thursday of last week," he said.
“I don’t want to ruffle feathers. This is my livelihood. If this goes down, I go down. if this goes down, I can't fund the gas station. I'm just trying to exist."
Shortly after speaking to MTN News Thursday, Carson drove over to the school and met Ator for the first time. The two talked for about 30 minutes. Their next conversation will be March 3 at a special Carbon County commissioners meeting.
"They said they would put a resolution together for one real reason," Ator said of the meeting, "to pump the brakes."
Carson was given documents that state a resolution will be put forward at the meeting to enact temporary zoning regulations to limit marijuana businesses. The provisions include that dispensaries must be set back 1,000 feet from a school or residential dwelling, regardless of street address.
"If they’re going to shake their pitchforks at me, to get me out of here, I’ll close down and walk away peacefully, if it comes down to that," Carson said. "I hope that it doesn’t. I hope we can find a middle ground."