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Sonoma Planning Commission OKs dispensary use permit

The design of Sonoma’s first commercial storefront cannabis dispensary was hammered last week by members of the Sonoma Planning Commission, who said the renovations by dispensary operator Sparc would make the building look “quasi-industrial,” “like a Best Buy, and “like it belongs in Palm Springs.”

Otherwise, commissioners were impressed by the details of the operation, and they approved a use permit for the retail business as long as the architect maintains more of the existing building features.

The Sparc dispensary is seeking a permit to operate at 19315 Sonoma Highway, recently the home of the orange-painted El Gallo Pinto restaurant. The proposed renovations to the building included metal siding, a boxy entrance and a roof sign. Commissioners feared that the changes would take the building further from its roots, although a historic evaluation found that the building is not eligible for protection. It was built in 1908 as part of the Sonoma Grove Resort and Restaurant and operated under the same name and several owners into the 1990s, surviving two fires. The original roofline has been maintained, and commissioners did not want any features added onto it.

“What I have an objection to is the conversion of a building of rich history into something that doesn’t look historical from the outside at all. It looks like a new building,” Commissioner Larry Barnett said. “Once these changes are made, its sense of history, to me, is going to be lost.”

Sparc CEO Erich Pearson argued that the additions were not structural, and a restoration would still be possible by a future tenant. He said the metal siding is fire resistant and is an ode to turkey farms that have operated up and down the Sonoma Valley. The inside of the dispensary would showcase information on the building’s history, he said.

“We’re simply looking to add our spin onto this building,” added Andrew Dobbs-Kramer, the director of licensing and compliance for Sparc. “There’s not going to be a loss of any historic resource.”

When commissioners asked if Sparc would consider redesigning the plans and coming back to the commission for approval, Pearson said he wanted to reach a compromise at the meeting so the project wouldn’t be delayed. He agreed to get rid of the roof sign and boxy entrance, and the metal siding was allowed to remain.

Erich Pearson.
Erich Pearson.

“I know the council is super motivated, on behalf of the city, of course, to get the doors open of the dispensary and get the tax revenues through and get the services we provide and the cannabis that the community has been waiting for,” Pearson said.

Sparc, which operates dispensaries in Sebastopol and Santa Rosa and has a cannabis farm in Glen Ellen, was granted the city’s first certificate to operate a storefront dispensary in December after a months-long process. The company submitted its application for a use permit in February and can begin construction once the building permits are approved. The dispensary is hoping to open its doors in August.

The period in which the use permit approval can be appealed runs to May 28.

Dobbs-Kramer addressed two concerns that he said often come with marijuana operations. To limit cash transactions, Sparc has its own app that allows for mobile payments. Sparc is also part of a pilot program by a federally insured bank to offer services to cannabis companies, he said.

As for security, the building will be patrolled by a “safety host” during the day, and at night cameras will be equipped with speakers so that if movement is detected, someone can tell an intruder that law enforcement is on its way. The dispensary would be allowed to operate from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Once renovations are complete, Sparc will seek a Commercial Cannabis Business Permit from city staff, which shows the company has satisfied all of the city’s requirements and conditions in order to operate.

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