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Santa Rosa City Council poised to vote on disputed cannabis store

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Nearly a year after a city panel approved a dispensary near an east Santa Rosa preschool, the project’s backers hope changes to their business proposal will convince the City Council to side with them over the objections of the school and a neighboring bike pub and cafe.

The Fox Den dispensary at 4036 Montgomery Drive would be located in a warehouse behind the Trail House pub and would be across a fence from the Kiwi Preschool and Childcare Center in the commercial complex near the Summerfield Cinemas and Howarth Park.

Both Kiwi and Trail House publicly denounced the dispensary before the Planning Commission approved the project on a 5-0 vote in January, with Kiwi going further to file a formal objection shortly after that decision. A subsequent City Council appeal hearing failed to reach a resolution. Council members were generally willing to support local cannabis businesses but hesitant to approve the Fox Den project after critics raised concerns about the safety of children and the traffic impacts of adding a bustling pot business next to the thriving pub on a site where parking already comes at a premium.

The rescheduled appeal hearing Tuesday comes as cannabis companies across the state, including local firms, have slashed hundreds of jobs, even as Santa Rosa has started to see new dispensaries open their doors. The project is driven by Dennis Hunter, co-founder of Cannacraft, Sonoma County’s largest homegrown cannabis manufacturer. Last month, it laid off 16% of its workforce.

If approved, Fox Den would join five existing cannabis retailers as well as 16 that have secured approval and 13 others still under review. Three dispensaries were operating in Santa Rosa before the city updated its cannabis rules and started taking applications last year.

City rules prohibit pot shops within 600 feet of elementary and secondary schools, but there’s no such legal buffer between dispensaries and preschools or day cares. Kiwi appealed nonetheless, arguing the Fox Den project clashed with city permit rules on neighborhood compatibility, site suitability and nuisance potential, particularly in the fenced-in gap between the preschool and the back of the warehouse.

“We check our fence perimeter daily to be sure our children are safe and do not pick up any garbage that may have been thrown over the fence,” Kiwi center director Michele MacKinnon wrote in an appeal letter. “We have been very fortunate these past 28 years to have our preschool be situated behind businesses and off the street. We want to keep feeling that our children are in a safe environment without worrying about what could occur if a cannabis dispensary is opened so close to our school.”

Kiwi did not drop its appeal after Fox Den revised its proposal over the summer to address concerns about traffic raised by Trail House supporters. The dispensary’s size has been reduced to cut its parking mandates, and vehicle traffic on the site will be reversed to a clockwise direction to improve sightlines for drivers merging onto Montgomery Drive, said Nick Caston, a consultant working on the Fox Den project.

Caston noted that the application to open a dispensary on the Fox Den site was first submitted well over a year ago, before reports emerged of the struggling legal cannabis industry, which continues to be undercut by the lucrative black market.

“That’s a lot of burn time to not be able to open up,” he said.

The site will have on-site security staff during business hours of 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., as well as other security measures such as cameras, Caston said.

Fox Den’s backers continue to look for a new face after splitting up with the White Fox Medicinals cannabis brand, led by Scarlet Ravin of Forestville. Ravin in late October said that she had severed her ties with the project earlier this year after business interactions with Hunter soured.

“I just felt pretty used,” she said Monday. “I’m just glad that we’re not associated any more.”

Caston, responding on Hunter’s behalf, said he rejected Ravin’s characterization of the split and said the cannabis industry was not immune to infighting, particularly at time when brands face challenges to stand out and succeed.

“I’ve been in the middle of several boardroom meetings when there’s been a lot of personal tempers flaring,” he said.

The dispensary’s name and branding may be updated based on which brand replaces Ravin’s. Caston said the site’s exterior signs would not feature any overt cannabis advertising.

“It won’t be a big cannabis leaf or anything like that,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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