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Council agrees on 2nd dispensary, disagrees on 1st priority

The Sonoma City Council was faced with two questions about allowing a second cannabis dispensary in town — one difficult, one easy. The easy one was a single-digit revision to the municipal code changing the number of retail dispensaries allowed from one to two – “probably one of the shortest ordinances I’ve ever written,” said Planning Director David Storer.

The resolution to change the number of retail dispensaries in the municipal code from one to two – without changing any of the other four allowed cannabis business limits – passed 4-1, with Madolyn Agrimonti against. It will likely come back at the next meeting for a consent calendar approval, and go into effect in mid-May.

The other question was how to select that second dispensary operator, whether from the previous applicants of last year’s process, or opening it up to other applicants through a new process altogether.

Storer and his staff had come up with four possible options for finding that second dispensary operator. One would be to return open up a new RFP (request for proposal) and evaluation process that would follow the 2020 procedures to review a new slate of applications.

Two other proposals would be to contact to the initial set of applicants to see if they’re interested in resubmitting for the second retail permit, either all of the 10 applicants or the “top five” that council review produced. The fourth option would simply be to contact the runner-up in the first evaluation process, Justice Grown, to see if still remains interested in operating a retail storefront dispensary and if its proposal or operation has changed in any way.

Following public comment and initial council comments, the idea of returning to the initial pool of applicants in general, or Justice Grown specifically, proved to have little support from council or public comment, and reopening the process to a wider number of applicants gained favor. But the specter of county-permitted dispensaries in Glen Ellen and Kenwood, currently in various stages of review, raised the question of how important it was for Sonoma to license a second dispensary at all.

Sonoma Valley resident Josette Brose-Eichar pointed out that the Glen Ellen dispensary in particular has a well-organized opposition, and could be years away from opening. “The city is in a unique position: you are able to move quickly and benefit all of the valley and the city itself,” she said, encouraging the city to move forward “to give those of us who want this medicine a choice.”

Overall a second dispensary in Sonoma remained popular as providing competition not only in pricing, but also for product variety and availability. Eli Melrod, the CEO of Solful dispensary in Sebastopol, said the opportunity reminded him of the situation in Sebastopol, which also now has two dispensaries – his, and a Sparc dispensary.

“We’ve seen two dispensaries flourish and really be successful in the city of Sebastopol,” he said, and implied Solful would be a good fit for Sonoma as well – and since they did not apply in the 2020 process, they would be interested in doing so in a re-opened process.

With little opposition to a second dispensary – aside from Councilmember Agrimonti, who reaffirmed that her initial support even for a single dispensary was reached reluctantly, and called herself “one and done” – the debate focused instead on how much time finding a new dispensary would take, and how much time it would take away from current priorities, specifically affordable housing initiatives.

“Personally I’d prefer to spend my time on your behalf dealing with the housing issue,” said Storer. “Also (there’s) a lot of things to talk about relative to the development code – it’s going to be a squeeze, to be honest with you.”

Storer went over flowcharts of the 2020 process, “for the benefit of Councilmember Kelso (Barnett),” who is new to the council (as is Jack Ding, also not on the city council during last year’s process, though he had previously been briefed). The planning director concluded that, “We can return to council with an abbreviated process, we can cut some time in the RFP, do some initial ranking ourselves, we have a little bit of experience in that” – but he suggested the process couldn’t be concluded before the fall of this year, and would take perhaps a quarter of his time.

Councilmember Amy Harrington was dissatisfied with Storer’s estimate of the time it would take him and his staff (of Kristina Tierney and Wendy Atkins) to oversee and implement a new RFP process for a new slate of eligible applicants, and she returned to the flowchart looking for places where staff time could be shaved. “It just doesn’t seem like it would take that much time,” she said about Storer’s estimates.

Barnett agreed that housing, the cemetery and other issues were perhaps more important than a fast-tracked cannabis process. “If we have to choose, I would really prefer to focus on housing and other issues right now — while signaling we approve a second dispensary, but we don’t necessarily have to start the process right way.”

“I think that’s the same as not doing it,” said Harrington.

But the other council members were less focused on an immediate solution. “I don’t want to sacrifice our work on housing at all,” said Mayor Logan Harvey. “The process, I think we could wait a bit, finish a lot of work we’re doing on the development code, and open up this RFP in six months or so.”

Eventually the council agreed with Harrington’s suggestion that hiring a contract planner could open up some of Storer’s time — depending on finding the appropriate, cannabis-literate consultant to help out.

On Thursday, the city’s website read, “In the staff report for April 19 and per the request of Council, staff will note what an expedited process to allow for the selection of the 2nd dispensary might look like.”

Kiff told the Index-Tribune that the“expedited process” would be drawn up so the selection could move forward "without taking so much time that we are diverted from other council priorities, such as housing.”

Contact Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com. This article has been updated from the version that appears in the April 9 newspaper.

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