BY ANGELINA MARTIN
The start of the new year brings recreational marijuana sales around the state. While California voters chose to support Proposition 64 during the 2016 general elections, local government leaders at the city and county level have prepared for the coming influx of pot in different ways.
Despite legality at the state level, individual cities and counties have their own say as to whether or not they will allow commercial cannabis sales within their limits.
Stanislaus County was tasked with creating a conservative strategy to allow the retail sale and cultivation of cannabis within county-governed areas, with the Board of Supervisors first approving in September the development of such a policy. In that same approval, it was also decided that county staff would return to the Board with a regulatory ordinance, zoning ordinance amendment and fee schedule, which were approved by the Board on Dec. 19.
“Honestly, I would never have imagined sitting at the staff table discussing cannabis as a legal industry in my lifetime, but…this is the reality and the legal landscape that we now must maneuver,” said Assistant Executive Officer Keith Boggs when he presented the strategy to the Board on Sept. 26. “We’re here to propose a conservative allowance strategy; one that, if implemented, we believe will generate the revenue that is necessary to manage and administer a capped program while providing the necessary resources for law enforcement to thwart non-permitted activities.”
The plan will allow for up to 61 cannabis activities permits in the county’s unincorporated areas – seven dispensaries and 54 cultivation, nursery, manufacturer, testing, distribution or transporter permits.
Despite the fact that cannabis activities are currently prohibited in the unincorporated areas of Stanislaus County, there are at least 14 active marijuana dispensary storefronts and hundreds of grow sites throughout those areas, said Boggs. Under the strategy, businesses operating illegally in the unincorporated areas had a 15-day window, Oct. 2-20, to submit an application for a permit along with a non-refundable $4,359 deposit.
In order to choose the seven dispensaries permitted, the county will conduct interviews with each candidate and score them based on background investigations, plans for safety, security and parking.
The county’s Department of Planning and Community Development stated that there were 117 registrations and 265 total permit requests received during the application permit window in October, with the most in Modesto (53), Ceres (14) and Oakdale (9). There were five permit requests in Turlock, four in Hughson, two in Denair and one in Keyes.
Sixty-one Commercial Cannabis Activity permits will be distributed to the top applicants who pass background screenings, but the process will not be completed until late February or early March. So, although the state will begin issuing licenses in January, they will not issue a permit unless there has already been approval from that business’ jurisdiction.
Money generated from the new strategy – thanks to the application fee and a community benefit fee – is expected to fund enforcement to ensure the strategy is followed, said Boggs, with law enforcement expecting to answer complaints regarding outdoor cultivation and illegal grows. The community benefit fees are 8 percent of gross sales for dispensaries, $5 to $10 per square foot for indoor cultivation and 2.5 percent of gross sales for testing facilities.
Debbie Whitmore, who was the City of Turlock’s Deputy Director of Development Services and Planning Manager at the time, spoke at the Nov. 16 Stanislaus County Planning Commission meeting, where she commended the commission for listening to the concerns of cities before sending the zoning ordinance amendment, which identifies where commercial cannabis activities may be permitted, back to the Board for approval.
The county took into consideration the placement of cannabis businesses within cities’ adopted spheres of influence, or the area directly outside of a city’s limits, and also addressed the need to identify added setbacks for cannabis activities. For the City of Turlock specifically, the county addressed the city’s request to allow cities with adopted commercial cannabis bans decision-making power over approval of discretionary commercial cannabis permits within their spheres of influence and within a one-half mile radius outside of their influence.
“We’re not here to necessarily express support for the ordinance, but do want to express support for two key provisions of the draft regulatory ordinance…and express the city’s appreciation for additional time taken by county staff to address the comments and concerns in the City of Turlock,” said Whitmore, who was accompanied to the meeting by Interim City Manager Robert Talloni.
Turlock prohibited all commercial cannabis activities in January 2017, including dispensaries and deliveries of medical cannabis, and according to Mayor Gary Soiseth, the City Council is not expected to readdress the issue in 2018.
“We wanted to make sure that businesses would not be located immediately next to Turlock city limits, and impose on city residents and businesses a use that would be inappropriate for our city,” said Whitmore, adding that the cannabis businesses would also likely stretch an already-thin demand for city fire and police units.
“Having these businesses near, the city is likely to be the first responder,” she said.
Under the regulatory ordinance for the county’s strategy, there is a 600-foot buffer for cannabis businesses from schools, youth centers and daycares, a 200-foot buffer from residences, as well as odor control, employee background checks and other security measures.
Other Stanislaus County cities have taken a different approach from Turlock’s when it comes to cannabis, like Ceres, where the City Council unanimously approved the city’s first-ever legal medical cannabis dispensary on Oct. 23. In Riverbank, the town’s first medicinal, and, come Jan. 1, commercial cannabis dispensary was approved by the City Council on Dec. 12, and in Oakdale, a stiff cannabis ordinance was put into place to stop in-home cultivation of the plant.