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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on November 13th, 2019, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 20, Issue 37 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 20, Issue 37

County changes framework for cannabis retail stores application process

By ZAC EZZONE

Following a year of nonstop conversations over cannabis cultivation, residents and stakeholders in Santa Barbara County will have a new marijuana-related topic to discuss in 2020: The actual sale of the stuff. 

Currently, cannabis dispensaries are only located within the county’s cities that allow the businesses, such as Lompoc and Santa Barbara. But this could change by the end of next year as the county finalizes amendments to its cannabis retail ordinance that will allow shops to operate in unincorporated areas.

The county’s existing ordinance allows for one dispensary within each of the county’s six community plan areas, like Orcutt and Los Alamos. This limited number of locations makes each one extremely valuable for the chosen operator, 5th District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino said.  

When the county first drafted its cannabis retail ordinance in 2018, it planned on selecting operators through a lottery-based system of qualified applicants. But, during its Nov. 5 meeting, the Board of Supervisors discussed significant changes to this process, including a transition to a merit-based system that grades and ranks applicants with the top scorer receiving a permit for the location. 

Lavagnino told the Sun he wasn’t completely sold on this change out of a concern that operators who aren’t selected could attempt to claim the county was biased in its selection.

“Random selection gives a hands-off approach where nobody can say there is influence,” he said. 

But in selecting random operators, the county can’t guarantee the best project is chosen, 3rd District Supervisor Joan Hartmann told the Sun.  

Devon Wardlow, director of public affairs at Coastal Dispensary—which has one location in Santa Barbara and a second opening soon in Lompoc—told the Sun that as a future applicant, she’s happy the county switched to this merit-based approach because it ensures there’s fair competition between local and large operators. 

“As a small operator, I am more than willing to make the investment up front in what will be needed and what I think will be best for the individual communities, but if there is any chance of a lottery, it’s very hard for me to … make that type of investment without a sure bet that I’m going to be graded purely on merit,” Wardlow said during the public comment portion of the Nov. 5 meeting. 

After defining the selection approach, much of the discussion at the meeting focused on crafting the criteria the county will use to select the best project. Proposals will earn points based on aspects such as the project’s financial and security plans, as well as how that operator plans on benefiting the community where the shop is located.

Prior to the application process opening up, residents will have the chance to weigh in on these benefits at public meetings in each community plan area. Hartmann said that in other jurisdictions that also factor in community benefits, cannabis operators often become involved with and donate money to local nonprofits. 

Not all supervisors were thrilled with this community benefit component. At the meeting, 4th District Supervisor Peter Adam said implementing these kinds of requirements could set a precedent that extends beyond cannabis-related businesses. 

“I’m a little uncomfortable with this whole thing,” Adam said. “I realize this is a special subject matter for a variety of reasons, but I also wonder what other project we’ll be applying this logic to at some other time.”

In addition to weighing how projects will benefit the community, the county also plans to factor in how compatible different aspects of that project are with the surrounding neighborhood. These factors will differ by community plan area, but they could include looking at how the project fits in with the feel of the neighborhood or how the business could affect parking in the area.  

“When you have 20 or 30 people applying for one license, it would be nice that they fit the community and that they are also active participants in the community,” Lavagnino said. 

Another key metric, Hartmann said, is how the operator plans to educate the public on the adverse health effects of using cannabis. Deputy CEO Dennis Bozanich said this education could also include information on how cannabis products are tested and what this testing means. 

While the county plans to measure and score the community benefits and neighborhood compatibility of each project with a committee of staff members from different departments, it plans to hire a third-party consultant to evaluate and score the financial aspects of each project.  

County staff will bring back this ordinance, as well as a score sheet for the criteria being weighed, to the board in early January, Bozanich said. Assuming no significant changes are made, the ordinance could be adopted at a later meeting in January and go into effect by February, after which time operators could begin applying for permits. 

When applying, the operator must already own the property where they plan on locating, or have a binding agreement in place with a property owner that says the operator will take over the location if his or her proposal is selected, Bozanich said. The county could begin selecting operators in early summer, and locations could open about this time next year.

Regardless of how the county plans to roll out the retail cannabis selection, Lavagnino said it’s going to be a messy process. But, he said, it’s important these businesses open so people have a vetted place to purchase legal cannabis that’s properly tested. 

“You’ve got a lot of production, and there’s no place for people to go get it,” Lavagnino said. “The problem is if you’ve made it legal and you don’t offer it, people will go find it somewhere else and it incentives the black market. We’re all looking for a regulated, tested product in a safe store that has security and pays taxes.” 

Reach Staff Writer Zac Ezzone at zezzone@santamariasun.com.




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