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Council hits pause on amending marijuana dispensary process

The potential streamlining of the certification process for storefront cannabis shops remained in limbo Wednesday, as the Sonoma City Council pressed the pause button on revisions to its cannabis ordinance.

Council members were considering city staff recommendations for how to tighten up the timeline between fielding applications from dispensary hopefuls and awarding a conditional certificate to operate within the city limits.

The process to award the City’s first dispensary certificate, which went to the Santa Rosa-based Sparc dispensary in December of 2020, took nearly a year. Since then, Sparc has been navigating the planning and design-review requirements of its operation in the former El Gallo Pinto restaurant building at 19315 Sonoma Highway. It is expected to open in early 2022.

When the City Council amended its cannabis ordinance in April to allow for a second walk-in retail shop, members also directed staff to find ways to streamline the evaluation and selection process so certification of cannabis businesses going forward wouldn’t be the year-long process as it was with Sparc.

“Currently, I’m waiting for the first dispensary to open,” said Agrimonti this week when asked about the prospect of a second business.

City staff’s primary recommendation at the Sept. 8 meeting was to require applicants to identify a proposed site of their dispensary along with their initial submission – a change from the current process which carves out a separate period to identify a site after a first round of application review.

Additionally, staff recommended that if fewer than five proposals are received, the applicants will be treated as finalists for the certificate and immediately move to the second phase of the selection process, which includes presentations to the City Council and tours of proposed dispensary sites.

But it was suggestion to move the site identification to the start of the process that was a non-starter with the council on Wednesday.

Sonoma Planning Director David Storer said the council members preferred to take it one step at a time.

“Let’s see who these operators are and evaluate them and then see where they might find a site,” said Storer about the council’s direction.

Councilmember Kelso Barnett framed it as leveling the playing field for local dispensary hopefuls.

“One of the reasons why I supported a second dispensary is to provide an opportunity for smaller, Sonoma Valley-based entrepreneurs,” Barnett said in an email after the meeting. But if applicants were required to apply with a site already secured, “In my view, that would put applying out of reach for many local startups as it would be financially challenging to secure a location without confidence you’ll be awarded the permit.”

Barnett was also concerned that emphasizing the site so early in the process “may skew the evaluation process, as decision makers may prioritize the site selection over the quality of the operator.”

An additional consideration for the council members is the appeal of a dispensary approved under the County of Sonoma’s jurisdiction at 15499 Arnold Drive at Madrone in Glen Ellen. That appeal comes before the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Sept. 14. County staff has recommended the Supervisors deny the appeal, according to Storer.

Councilmember Bob Felder said that one of the impetuses for the council amending the ordinance last spring to allow for a second dispensary was to provide competition, hopefully resulting in better service and prices for consumers. The fate of the Arnold Drive proposal – one of three currently under consideration in the Valley but outside the city limits – “could be a factor on whether a second dispensary is necessary in the City of Sonoma,” Felder told the Index-Tribune.

The two other dispensary applications currently under review in the Sonoma Valley are at 15 Fremont Drive (at the Highway 121/116 junction) and 8910 Highway 12 (near Palooza Brewpub in Kenwood).

The council voted 3-1 to continue the item to Nov. 15, allowing staff time to amend its revisions to the cannabis ordinance and following the results of the Board of Supervisors decision on the appeal of the dispensary proposal at 15499 Arnold Drive.

Voting against further discussion of streamlining the dispensary certification process was Agrimonti, who again stressed her resistance to a second walk-in dispensary in Sonoma.

“I said ‘no’ on adopting the amendment to the municipal code to allow for the second dispensary, so I have to stay true to how I have voted regarding this issue,” Agrimonti said at the meeting regarding her April 19 vote. “I’m still not in favor of a second dispensary.”

Email Jason Walsh at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.

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