Making Your Case Against Regulations
City planning, codes, zoning, and government regulations are generally considered to be rather boring subjects to most people. But when there’s an issue that’s important enough to you and that you’re passionate about, you may have to bite the bullet and dive in head first.
City Planning Meeting
In a previous article, I mentioned having had an informational interview with a developer. As part of our conversation, we talked about community meetings and the importance of having the support of the public. Today I observed a city planning commission meeting. There were only two main objectives and topics of discussion, though one clearly elicited a strong reaction on both sides of the issue.
A Dispensary? Not in My Neighborhood!
In the State of California, recreational cannabis (marijuana) is legal. In order for a business to operate, for example a retail store to have permission to run their business within city limits, they need to obtain what’s called a Conditional Use Permit (CUP). It’s basically a permit to use the property in a certain manner. In this case the issue was about a dispensary (cannabis retail store) and whether or not it should be allowed in a specific location.
The topic began with a presentation from a city official catching everyone up on events preceding the meeting. A decision had been made to approve the CUP request, though various people had since appealed the decision hoping to stop the dispensary from opening up shop. The City official listed the arguments one by one and explained why according to City codes and regulations the arguments were insufficient.
For example, as per local regulations a dispensary cannot be placed within 1000 feet of a church, park, school, or “minor-oriented business”. One argument was that the dispensary was close to a park and though technically beyond 1000 feet, the permit should be withheld because it’s “close enough”. A survey was conducted and it was determined that the park is 1014 feet from the proposed dispensary. As a result, that argument failed.
A second argument was made that there are businesses where children would be present within a 1000-foot radius. In fact, there’s a psychologist’s office and other medical offices in the same building as the proposed dispensary. But the mere fact that children may be present at a place of business, does not make it a “minor-oriented” business. A day-care center or after school teen center would be examples of minor-oriented businesses, where children are the primary target audience. As a result, this argument also failed.
After the public official completed his review, the floor was opened to people for and against the measure. Some members of the public simply stated their name and their support, while others in favor of the proposed site offered more personal reasons. For example, a pair of veterans spoke up and shared briefly how cannabis helps with their PTSD and how it “saved my life”.
Others argued against the dispensary, claiming that it negatively influences children and people of color. Another person brought up that in the same building, there already exists an addiction recovery center. This person argued that some people struggling with addictions would have to literally walk past their addiction in order to reach their treatment provider.
Whether they were for or against the dispensary, the public opinions were clearly animated and impassioned. Some had some strong and certainly legitimate points. But despite their strong emotional views on the subject, the majority of the public comments neglected to address the regulations that the City was using to make their determination.
The City wasn’t being insensitive or ignoring how cannabis helped a veteran or the realities of racial inequity. Their role was simply to make a decision based upon an interpretation of established regulations. To their credit, it wasn’t clear if the council members were personally for or against the placement of the dispensary.
How do you Define a Park?
In addition to the shorter public opinions, the Commission made time for two more formal presentations: one for and one against the measure.
The individual against the dispensary asked why there was such a focus on the park 1014 feet away, when there’s a cemetery only about 800 feet away. “Isn’t a cemetery a park?”
Well, maybe… After a fifteen-minute recess given to allow staff members to research the issue of whether a cemetery is a park, they came back and explained that there are different kinds of parks. In this case, the cemetery is not a place where people gather to engage in recreational activities. As a result, according to the Comprehensive Plan of the City, it’s not the kind of park that would qualify to prohibit the issuance of the CUP. In other words, while it could be considered a park in some respects, it wouldn’t stop the dispensary.
Know the Details
The Planning Commission wanted to provide an answer, for or against the appeal, without having to table the issue for a later date. But there was still some hesitancy.
That’s when someone else spoke up and mentioned a “topographic barrier”. Next to the cemetery is a church. The church is clearly within the 1000-foot radius of the proposed dispensary and yet that hadn’t prohibited the CUP from being issued. The reason is that humans do not travel as the crow flies.
Drawing a 1000-foot radius assumes that you could theoretically walk a perfectly straight line from the center point of a circle to a periphery point. But we can’t walk through trees and buildings. In fact, when you consider the chain link fence, a large hill, and neighboring buildings you have a distance of approximately 1400 feet between the church entrance and the proposed dispensary. Even cutting some corners, they concluded that it would still be a distance in excess of 1200 feet.
Since the City measures the required separation distance (in this case 1000 feet) along proper pedestrian paths, the opinion of the staff members was that the proper measurement of distance would still exceed the requirement.
After watching this meeting unfold, it was clear to me that in spite of the controversial nature of the subject and the opinions of people on both sides, it’s the municipal codes that matter most. The officials even pointed this out as they eventually shared their opinions on the matter. They explained that in spite of personal opinions they have to abide by the regulations that they’re given to work with.
Therefore, the moral is that if you’re trying to make an impact in your town or city, know the regulations and try to make it impossible for the officials to vote against you. If they were able to conclusively label that cemetery a park and assuming that the 1000-foot separation requirement was as the crow flies, the decision of the Commission likely would’ve been much simpler.
So, What Happened?!
At this point, you’re probably curious about how things turned out. Was the dispensary approved or was the CUP denied? Well, each of the voting members voiced their opinion. Several also expressed appreciation for the views of the public and echoed their concerns.
Though they acknowledged that they couldn’t deny the CUP on the basis of the separation distance argument, they were also tasked with making a decision about the safety and well-being of the public. With that argument in mind, some members voted against the dispensary. Still others felt that having met the letter of the law that the CUP should be approved. In fact, the vote ended up being a tie. With one voting member not in attendance, it was determined that that sole remaining member should watch the recording of the meeting and make a ruling, thus breaking the tie. That decision would be shared at a future meeting. I’ll provide an update on how things turn out in a later article.