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Santa Rosa approves marijuana farms in parts of city

Santa Rosa will allow commercial cultivation of medical marijuana in industrial areas of the city, but not, at least for the moment, in commercial areas and business parks.

The City Council’s 6-0 vote late Tuesday night represents a middle ground between the ban on large-scale pot growing city officials originally had proposed in response to new state law and the industry’s interest in establishing legal, permitted operations across a broader swath of the city, including shopping malls.

“I think being a little more restrained as we move forward is acceptable,” Mayor John Sawyer said.

The new rules are an interim measure designed to allow marijuana cultivation in areas least likely to conflict with existing uses until the city can pass a comprehensive set of regulations in the coming months.

No longer under pressure to meet the now-rescinded March 1 state deadline to regulate the industry, the city’s move will go to a second vote on March 8, and if approved will go into effect April 8.

After that date, growers can apply for what is known as a conditional use permit that would effectively legalize growing operations in three zoning districts: light industrial, general industrial and limited light industrial.

The largest areas of the city where industrial uses are allowed are North Point Parkway and Dutton Avenue in the southwest, Yolanda Avenue in the southeast, Piner Road and Airway Drive in the northwest and Fountaingrove Parkway in the northeast.

In a nod to smaller operators, those occupying spaces under 10,000 square feet would be allowed to apply for what is known as a minor conditional use permit, which costs about $2,445, according to city staff. Those seeking larger enterprises would need to obtain a major conditional use permit, which has a cost of $10,676.

In both cases, the permits only would be granted after a full application process that includes a public hearing before the Planning Commission. That process can take several months, meaning even those at the head of the line likely would not win approval until August or September, said Clare Hartman, the city’s deputy director of planning.

The high cost and lengthy approvals process means there probably won’t be a stampede of amateur growers seeking city approval for their operations, Councilwoman Erin Carlstrom said.

“You are not going to be seeing unsophisticated applicants,” said Carlstrom, an attorney who works for a local law firm that focuses on the marijuana industry. “These are folks who will already have made a significant investment in their company and in our community.”

Carlstrom argued that two additional zoning areas of the city - general commercial and business parks - also should be included in the new rules. Without them, allowable areas would be “extremely narrow.”

“It is my understanding that it is a significant portion of the available real estate here in the city,” Carlstrom said of the two additional zones.

The Planning Commission voted against such an expansion, stating that cultivation seemed less consistent with the uses in those districts.

General commercial covers uses such as restaurants and neighborhood strip malls, while the business park district is defined as “areas appropriate for planned visually attractive centers for business that do not generate nuisances (noise, cutter, noxious emissions).

Councilman Tom Schwedhelm, a retired Santa Rosa police chief, said he personally questions whether Proposition 215, which legalized medical marijuana in 1996, is being implemented as intended. Nonetheless, he said, “that ship has sailed.” The question before him as a councilman was what was best for the city at this point, he said.

“I voted for what I felt was a reasonable, conservative step,” Schwedhelm said.

Hartman said there has been significant interest in the city’s ordinance, including from growers in the county looking to set up shop in Santa Rosa. Her department has fielded about two calls a day for the six weeks it’s been working on the ordinance, she said.

It’s hard to say how many will apply and see the permit process through to completion, but getting local permits may help them win state licensing, which also will be required under new, comprehensive state laws, she said.

“One of the reasons why the industry is very interested in this interim ordinance is because opportunities to be recognized, be permitted and be in line for these state licenses is very important to them,” Hartman said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter ?@srcitybeat.

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