Santa Rosa releases draft rules for medical cannabis

The long-awaited regulations may determine whether the promised 'green rush' of cannabis investment takes root in Santa Rosa.|

Tired of living in the shadows, Santa Rosa’s medical cannabis industry asked to be regulated.

Last week the city obliged, releasing 36 pages of rules, restrictions, prohibitions and permitting requirements governing how previously underground operators will be allowed to do business in Sonoma County’s largest city.

The highly anticipated draft of the city’s comprehensive medical cannabis ordinance is expected to generate significant feedback from an industry both excited by the opportunities cannabis legalization provides and anxious about the burden excessive taxation and regulation may bring.

City staff consider the draft ordinance one of the state’s most lenient, allowing most types of operators to locate in the city with as few restrictions as necessary.

“Unlike other jurisdictions, I think we have a uniquely permissive ordinance,” said Clare Hartman, the city’s deputy director of planning.

She noted that with the exception of outdoors cannabis cultivators, the city welcomes a range of medical cannabis businesses, including indoor growers, processors, manufacturers, distributors and testing labs, under various restrictions meant to limit the impact on neighbors.

Those restrictions range from the mundane, such as rules dictating the number of parking spaces required for specific types of cannabis businesses, to more consequential regulations barring marijuana sales within ?600 feet of schools.

One key provision of the new rules is the city is allowing only medical cannabis businesses, not any catering to adult recreational pot use, which voters approved in November. Proposition 64 allowed local jurisdictions to restrict recreational-use businesses, and the three-member subcommittee made it clear it wasn’t as open to that activity as 57 percent of state voters.

The city also is proposing to bar dispensaries from downtown, as well as around the city’s two SMART stations - two areas where the city hopes to focus future residential growth. Those prohibitions largely stem from the fact the city’s existing dispensary ordinance, which capped the number of dispensaries at two, also barred dispensaries from the downtown zone. The subcommittee viewed that 2005 ordinance as a success and wanted to stay with that prohibition, Hartman said.

Another key element of the draft is limitations meant to prevent an overconcentration of dispensaries in any particular neighborhood.

In addition to being restricted to a handful of commercial and industrial zones, the ordinance creates a 1,000-foot buffer zone around any existing dispensary, preventing any other dispensary from setting up shop in that zone, Hartman said.

The goal was to address concerns about overconcentration without creating an arbitrary cap on the number of dispensaries in the city, she said, but the reality is the city is unlikely to approve more than ?20 dispensaries.

The city already has approved use permits for medical cannabis businesses at 11 locations to date, and received applications for about 13 others, according to the city.

The draft included feedback from virtually every city department and three committees, Hartman said. The city’s technical committee on cannabis alone had more than 20 members, and the City Council’s three-member subcommittee took public input on various cannabis rules ?17 times, she said.

“Government rarely gets things right the first time,” said Councilman Chris Rogers, a member of the subcommittee. “I think this is a really, really good first attempt at it.”

Many of the components of the comprehensive ordinance got their start in interim rules, from covering growers in early 2016 to later regulations covering manufacturing, testing and distribution.

The city learned a lot during those temporary, and, in a sense, experimental efforts, Hartman said. For example, while the city initially considered growers below 10,000 square feet in size to require less regulation than those over, it realized a lower figure made more sense. “Once you’re past 5,000 square feet, you’re really considered a large-scale medical cultivation facility” requiring greater scrutiny for impacts like odor and security, Hartman said.

Growers under 5,000 square feet will now be able to get minor use permits from a city planner acting as a zoning administrator rather than through a planning commission hearing, Hartman said.

Another example of something the city learned was the concern that cannabis businesses could potentially crowd out future housing. One cultivation permit was granted for a business on the industrial-zoned Maxwell Drive area, but in deference to such concerns, the new ordinance allows no additional cannabis uses in the area. The creation of the draft took longer than expected, largely because the state rules kept changing, Hartman said. Now the city rules can sync up with the state’s, which have only recently been clarified, she said.

Extra care also was taken to provide more detail to make it less likely there were any surprises among future applicants, Hartman said.

“It you have a question about cannabis, hopefully the answer will be in here,” she said.

Craig Litwin, a former mayor of Sebastopol and prominent cannabis industry consultant, said the effort looks promising.

“From a first glance, the ordinance appears very well-balanced,” Litwin said. “I look forward to a deeper dive into the details and timeline.”

Toward that end, the city is hosting a community meeting from 6 to 8 p.m. on July 17 in the City Council Chambers, 100 Santa Rosa Ave.

That will be followed by feedback going to the subcommittee, with a final draft heading to the planning commission, followed by the City Council in the fall, Hartman said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or ?On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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