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Planning Commission recommends medical marijuana zoning

The county’s Planning Commission has recommended a medical marijuana zoning policy which will be heard by the San Diego County Board of Supervisors for adoption.

The Planning Commission’s 5-0 vote May 14, with Commissioners Michael Beck and Adam Day absent, restricts medical marijuana dispensaries to industrial-zoned areas and prohibits them from being within 500 feet of a residential area, 600 feet of a school, church, or public park, or 1,000 feet from another dispensary. A separate 4-1 vote, with Beck and Day absent and Leon Brooks in opposition, recommended that such facilities be

required to meet Americans with Disabilities Act standards.

In November 1996 the state’s voters passed Proposition 215, which allows the cultivation, possession, and use of marijuana for medical purposes, although under Federal law the sale of marijuana for any purpose is illegal. Proposition 215 did not address the sale of medical marijuana, although in 2003 the state legislature adopted Senate Bill 420, which prohibits prosecution of sales to persons with a prescription. Those authorized to possess or cultivate marijuana for personal medical purposes include qualified patients, primary caregivers, and patients and caregivers who associate to collectively or cooperatively cultivate marijuana for medical purposes.

By August 2009 three medical marijuana dispensaries in unincorporated San Diego County were confirmed: two in Spring Valley and one in unincorporated Vista. On August 5, 2009, the Board of Supervisors adopted an urgency ordinance which enacted a moratorium on all new marijuana dispensaries. The moratorium was intended to allow county staff time to study where such dispensaries should be allowed and determine appropriate use regulations.

“Communities have documented the serious adverse impacts,” said Joe Farace, a planning manager for the county’s Department of Planning and Land Use (DPLU).

A workgroup including staff members from DPLU, County Counsel, and the Sheriff’s Department worked to develop two companion ordinances which would regulate medical marijuana facilities. The ordinance which would amend the County Code of

Regulatory Ordinances involves law enforcement and was not covered in the Planning Commission hearing. The amendment to the county’s Zoning Ordinance was the proposal reviewed by the Planning Commission.

“We’re here exclusively for land use, locations, and siting,” said Planning Commission Leon Brooks, who urged public speakers to address the land use issues rather than the merits or lack thereof of medical marijuana use.

In 2001 DPLU granted an administrative permit for a topless dancing facility in unincorporated El Cajon across from a shopping center which included a children’s dance studio, an arcade, and a pizza parlor. In response to that situation, in 2002 the county supervisors approved amendments to the county’s Zoning Ordinance which removed commercial zoning areas as potential sites for adult entertainment businesses and limited adult establishments not grandfathered to land with industrial M50, M52, M54, and M58 zoning. The adult entertainment ordinance also prohibited such establishments within 500 feet of a residential area, 600 feet of a school, church, or public park,

or 1,000 feet from another adult entertainment establishment.

The proposed section of the Zoning Ordinance covering medical marijuana dispensary facilities limits such dispensaries to the same M50, M52, M54, and M58 land as adult entertainment facilities while imposing the same distance requirements. The section would also require that dispensaries be designed and constructed so that no area or portion where marijuana is cultivated or stored can be visible from the exterior while requiring the entrance to be visible from the public street.

Dispensaries in commercial locations established prior to the moratorium must cease operations at that site prior to August 1, 2013, while facilities which opened illegally after the moratorium was enacted do not have such an amortization period. Medical marijuana dispensaries would not require discretionary permits but would require building permits, licenses, and other ministerial authorizations.

(Although the county has a C46 Medical Center zoning category intended to create a concentration of medical and compatible uses, permitted civic uses in areas with C46 zoning include child care services and small schools as well as medical services. The allowance for medical-related facilities in C46 zones is not absolute; ambulance services are only allowed with a Major Use Permit. All development in C46 zones must have a site plan.)

The restriction to industrial areas also makes cultivation facilities more compatible with surrounding businesses. The cultivation process requires heavy electrical, air venting and circulation, fertilizing, and water usage requirements for which commercial buildings might not be suitable.

Due to free speech issues the county cannot regulate the content of signage, although signage as well as parking requirements for medical marijuana dispensaries must conform to regulations for other businesses with similar zoning.

DPLU’s proposed ordinance required such facilities to be at least 1,000 feet away from a residential area, school, church, or public park, which identified 187 industrial properties. The 1,000-foot separation from other dispensaries would have reduced that number to between 15 and 20 sites. When the adult entertainment ordinance was adopted in 2002, DPLU staff identified 76 parcels in the unincorporated area of the county which would meet that ordinance’s distance requirements.

The County of San Diego does not have land use jurisdiction for zoning in incorporated cities. “If you don’t live in this area, I’m sure one of the other jurisdictions will accommodate you,” Brooks said.

The 1,000-foot restrictions led to the identification of five sites in Ramona, three in Lakeside, two apiece in Alpine, San Dieguito, and unincorporated El Cajon, and one apiece in Julian, Borrego, and Spring Valley. “I’m going to have trouble finding my medicine in North County,” said Bill Bliss of Vista, who began using medical marijuana after his hip replacement.

“We’re patients. We’re not criminals. We don’t deserve to be treated as criminals,” said Rudy Reyes, who was burned in the 2003 Cedar Fire and now lives in Santee.

Anthony Silvia of San Diego noted that limiting the number of dispensaries would be counterproductive. “It’s a small collective atmosphere,” he said.

Silvia explained that limiting the number of collectives would require larger individual facilities. “They’re not promoting the collectives we’re looking for,” he said.

Tom Hetherington, who owns a business in Bonsall, noted that Proposition 215 was passed to provide immunity to patients and primary caregivers. “A storefront is not a caregiver,” he said.

Barbara Warner of Casa de Oro took exception to claims that medical marijuana users were being forced into the county’s remote areas. “In my area probably about 300 kids have no other route but by a marijuana dispensary,” she said. “It’s not out in the wilderness. It’s a semi-urban area.”

Marcus Boyd of Imperial Beach noted that some incorporated cities including his own are waiting for a county ordinance before developing their own zoning policies. “They are looking at you for precedent,” he said.

In seeking the shorter separation from sensitive areas, Planning

Commissioner Peder Norby noted that the figure of 15 to 20 sites was less than the total number of unincorporated towns in the county. “It’s a little narrow given all those communities,” he said.

Norby also noted that those sites are contingent upon being available for sale or lease. “We don’t get into the free market in terms of what’s available,” he said.

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