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Sonoma County supervisors clear the way for Glen Ellen cannabis dispensary

Soon, there will be not one but two cannabis dispensaries in the Sonoma Valley – and at least two more waiting for the green light from the county. Set to join Sonoma’s Sparc dispensary, poised to open around the end of the year, will be a dispensary in a decommissioned firehouse in southern Glen Ellen, to be named the Loe Firehouse Dispensary.

John and Samantha Loe (formerly John Lobro and Samantha Smith) prevailed at the Sept. 14 Board of Supervisors meeting against the appeal to their planned 1,891-square-foot cannabis dispensary at 15499 Arnold Drive, at the intersection with Madrone Road. Their application for the retail cannabis shop was filed four years ago and approved by the county’s Board of Zoning Adjustments (BZA) in April, but was immediately hit with an appeal from a nonprofit neighborhood association called Protect Our Sonoma Valley Family Neighborhood.

The appeal to the BZA ruling was heard by the full Board of Supervisors, working from a staff report prepared by Permit Sonoma’s Crystal Acker. Her summary went through the appeal point by point, finding reasons to rebut each concern – on issues such as consistency with county code on parking spaces, property setbacks, hearing notices, traffic analysis and public outreach.

At the same time, the staff report would not allow the applicants – the Loes – to eliminate some conditions of approval imposed by the BZA ruling, specifically those requiring sidewalk and public frontage upgrades to comply with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards.

Acker’s report found many of the reasons for appeal were invalid – for instance, the concern that other dispensaries made the Firehouse redundant is not true at this point in time, the anticipated traffic conditions from the Sonoma Developmental Center are unknown for the future, nor do the same setbacks appropriate to cannabis cultivation apply to cannabis dispensaries.

In their discussion, the board pointed out that every cannabis dispensary permitted so far has needed a variance from the setbacks that are in the county code, prompting Supervisor David Rabbitt to say, “It’s obvious if every dispensary approved to date does not meet our setback criteria, perhaps our setback criteria is not what it should be.”

Paul Morrison, who lives not far from the contested location, focused on the 100-foot setback that a dispensary is supposed to have to prevent offside impacts, saying that “400 people live within the 100-foot setback from the facility,” which he said inevitably led to exposure of minors to cannabis products.

“It has been shown that exposure of healthy minors to marijuana dispensaries may encourage them to sample the substance,” he said.

Dave Palmgren, another member of the neighborhood group, pointed out that there are several other facilities near by coming up, and “to shoehorn a dispensary into our neighborhood is completely misguided,” he said. He suggested better locations in Glen Ellen would be the Jack London Village, SDC or downtown Glen Ellen.

The public comment was about evenly split between opponents and proponents, with some of the supporters from the same apartment complex on Madrone that other neighbors claimed was at most risk of “exposure.” Supporters focused on the convenience of a nearby dispensary, and several cited the local ownership – Samantha Loe spent some time going over her grandparent’s connections with Glen Ellen.

“The dispensary is more than a family business to me, it’s a means of giving back to the community where my grandparents spent their golden years,” she said, and the firehouse business is named after her family. She and her husband have two young children, the youngest less than a year old.

The question of exposure to minors also failed to gain much traction, at least in part because county rules do not allow businesses to use the word “cannabis” (or its various synonyms) on signage, or to display images of the plant.

One of the neighbors, when discussing the traffic issues, asked, “How many people are going out and buying cannabis at 7 in the morning?” referring to the time of school bus routes.

The final comment came from a retired police officer and licensed public investigator in Sonoma, who neglected to give his name. He warned that “strong-arm robberies are crimes of opportunity,” and the proposed dispensary is in “a prime location for a strong-arm robbery, cash and cannabis are readily available, and because of its remote location the escape routes are plentiful.”

But the supervisors themselves, reliant on the reports and experience of county staff, didn’t find any reason to be concerned about crime. Dispensaries must have high security measures in place, no one can enter without proof of age, and to her knowledge there have been no robberies of dispensaries in Sonoma County, said Acker.

Supervisor Susan Gorin, in whose first district the Loe Firehouse is located, had the most to say about the application. “It’s complicated, like everything to do with cannabis is,” she said.

Gorin also said she was “nervous about dispensary applications queuing up in Sonoma Valley.” The county has decided that nine such businesses would be the right number for the non-incorporated areas of Sonoma. At least two other dispensary applications are in the permitting process, on Fremont Drive near the Bonneau crossroads and in Kenwood, which could conceivably lead to three of the nine in the Sonoma Valley. Add to those the single licensed dispensary in the City of Sonoma, and the possibility that the City could permit a second dispensary — it’s possible that as many as five cannabis dispensaries could wind up in the Sonoma Valley.

Though Gorin was taken to task for not favoring the neighborhoods over the business, she mentioned that she lived in Oakmont, “an active adult community” (the quotation marks were hers), where “shockingly, we have a 200-member-strong cannabis club!” The reason she pointed to was that “many aging folks are looking to CBDs to ease some of the medicinal challenges.”

A less formal argument was made about John Loe himself, as two of the public commenters raised concerns about his past temper and behaviors. Supervisor James Gore said, “As difficult as it is, this is land use, and it’s really not about the personalities on the other side.”

Gore said that the county does have “a significant amount of oversight” that could be brought to bear, and suggested that if they allowed the dispensary to go forward, they could add a condition for approval that it could come back in a year or two for review.

That is eventually what Gorin did, moving to deny the appeal and clear the way for the dispensary to begin operation, but requiring that it come back to the Board of Supervisors two years after it opens for business.

But don’t head to Glen Ellen quite yet for a CBD fix. “There are several additional steps that the applicant is required to complete before the applicant begins remodeling,” said Bradley Dunn of Permit Sonoma. “Before remodeling or construction, the applicant must pay all fees, complete a design review, and secure encroachment and building permits.”

That could all take some time. “We tentatively plan to open the flagship Loe Firehouse dispensary in Glen Ellen by the first or second quarter 2022,” Loe told the Index-Tribune.

“It sure has been a long and challenging journey,” he said. “We seemed crazy at times. The process is not healthy for normal independent local people like us. But we made it and we plan to be a really positive influence on the community.”

Said Morrison, of the appealing group, “We were disappointed with the Board of Supervisors vote on the Glen Ellen Cannabis Dispensary. The Board of Supervisors has an obligation to enforce their own zoning codes and traffic guidelines and they did not at the Sept. 14 hearing. Further, we don’t feel that the Sonoma County officials are looking out for the best interests of the homeowners and their neighborhoods who would be heavily impacted by this proposed application.”

He said they were considering further legal options.

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