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Saturday, March 23 , 2019, 6:47 am | Fair 50º


Santa Barbara Planning Commission Clears the Way for Medical Pot Dispensary

Members deny an appeal of the project, which calls for the conversion of an Olive Street house

The Santa Barbara Planning Commission on Thursday voted 3-1 to deny an appeal by the Housing Authority Commission, which had asked that a medical marijuana dispensary not be placed near its apartment buildings or a Girls Inc. location.

The project, which would convert a small house at 631 Olive St. into a dispensary, was submitted in December and approved by the city in July. An appeal was filed in August by the Housing Authority, arguing that the location was within 500 feet of a planned child-care center and special-needs populations.

Under a city ordinance, dispensaries can be located in only three designated zones — one on Milpas Street, one downtown and one in the Upper State area — and are not to be located within 500 feet of a school, park or other dispensary.

Rob Pearson, executive director of the Housing Authority, spoke to the commission and said the group largely has tried to stay out of land-use issues in the past. “But when they directly affect our properties, we feel the need to speak up,” he said.

The Housing Authority has about 200 apartments in the immediate area of the dispensary, many of which are for low-income residents. “Over half of those are families; we have a lot of children in that neighborhood,” he said.

But Pearson was most emphatic about the location of the proposed dispensary near Girls Inc., where he said children might be put at risk. Much of Thursday’s debate centered on whether Girls Inc. could qualify as an educational facility.

City staff maintains that child-care and day-care centers don’t fall under the heading of a “school,” according to the city’s building code.

“When the dispensary ordinance was created, the intent of requiring the 500-foot distance from schools was to reduce the likelihood that schoolchildren and teens would be walking by,” a staff report said. “Child-care centers, day-care centers and preschools are different in that way from schools as the children are typically too young to be walking alone.”

Adding to the murky ordinance interpretation, the Ordinance Committee is expected to discuss the city’s medical marijuana ordinance Tuesday, and changes to the ordinance could loom. But members of the Planning Commission were encouraged Thursday by the city’s legal counsel to move forward with the current definition as they considered the Olive Street project.

The project’s applicant, Sefton Graham, maintained that the offenses were hypothetical at this point and that the city should proceed with permits.

“There is no evidence that a well-run dispensary leads to crime, and it’s unfair to stigmatize legal patients by treating their collective like a criminal or nuisance activity,” he said.

A handful of public speakers appeared before the commission, and none of them approved of the project’s location, which is surrounded by residential areas.

“This all comes down to trust,” senior planner Danny Kato said. “Do we trust the operator with what he says he’s going to do? From a staff perspective, we do.”

The city’s default position is to give the permit and revoke it if necessary.

On the dais, Commissioner John Jostes voted to deny the appeal. “I think those concerns are legitimate,” he told Pearson, but stood by the staff’s decision. “If problems do come to light, there is a process with which to remedy that problem.”

The decision can’t be appealed to the City Council, a fact that raised some concern among commissioners.

Commissioner Bendy White approved of the project, even though he voted against a dispensary project on Milpas that came before the commission two weeks ago.

Chairwoman Stella Larson said she couldn’t support the project unless police enforcement was a high priority.

“If I felt that enforcement would be swift and assured, I might be persuaded otherwise. There’s a lot at stake,” she said. “I would rather be preventive rather than prescriptive. ... In this location, rich with children, I am not confident in the positive contribution to that neighborhood.”

Commissioner Sheila Lodge initially was against the project, along with Larson, creating a tie vote. Lodge asked Graham what he would do if a client disobeyed the code of conduct and the marijuana ended up in the hand of minors. Graham said the client would be banned.

“We don’t want this to end up in schools. The idea that we’re going to be providing cannabis to the children at Girls Inc. is, for me, hard to fathom,” said Graham, adding that he could see how the perception could result in a “visceral reaction.”

“That is if you look at cannabis as if it’s something illegal,” he said. “It’s not. It’s legal for medical patients, and I think we are going to be providing a lot of good to the community.”

Lodge voted to deny the appeal after Jostes posed a new motion that would require Graham to make verbal contact with the Housing Authority, Transition House and Girls Inc. periodically to make sure there were no issues, and then submit a report to city staff.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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