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Controversy and chaos at the Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Commission

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The Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Commission found itself in the crosshairs of controversial cannabis-operation proposals, scheduling reviews of four applications in a single meeting on Wednesday, May 23.

When the smoke cleared, the SVCAC rejected two of the applications and endorsed one.

The fourth – Glen Ellen resident Mike Benziger’s application for limited cultivation on Jack London Road – was pulled by the applicant before the meeting began. The reason given for Benziger’s about-face was that the proposed cannabis garden site would be within 1,000 feet of a public park – Jack London State Historic Park, specifically – resulting in a violation of county ordinance. (It was later clarified that while his outdoor garden area was inside the 1,000-foot limit, the indoor cultivation building in his proposal was not, and he is expected to reopen that application.)

Although the Benziger application was the first on the agenda – the announcement it was being pulled came as a surprise – it was quickly overshadowed by Jessah Dunn’s proposal for a cannabis dispensary on Fremont Drive near the Bonneau Road crossroads.

Citizens Advisory Commission Chair Ryan Lely allocated 15 minutes for applicant presentations, but Dunn spoke for only two minutes before responding to questions from the commission. Then the session erupted into chaos as meeting attendee John Lobro, followed by James Munley and Tammy Bryant in short succession, used their public-comment opportunities to accuse Dunn of fraud, breach of contract and a variety of other allegations, eventually hurling insults and legal threats toward the applicant.

Lely and others tried to quell the outburst, pointing out that the SVCAC was not a civil court but merely concerned with permit applications. But Lely finally had to call a temporary recess to restore order, while Pat Gilardi, district director to 1st District Supervisor Susan Gorin, tried in vain to locate a law enforcement officer in the police station next door.

When the meeting resumed, Commissioner Margaret Spaulding called the uproar “unprecedented for this commission,” then, based on Dunn’s incomplete presentation, moved to deny “without prejudice” her application, leaving the door open for her to reapply. The motion to deny was unanimously approved.

By contrast, Jani Friedman’s proposal for a dispensary at Arnold Drive and Madrone Road was a far more traditional presentation. She presented her concept of Apothevert, a medical cannabis dispensary to be located in a former firehouse at the Arnold-Madrone intersection, with data, slides and even introducing her “all-female executive team.”

The team included a “healthy living” consultant from Sebastopol and the granddaughter of a Glen Ellen couple, Bob Glotzbach and Gena Van Camp. Friedman herself said she had received an MBA from Harvard, and had left a career in the beauty and fashion industries and investment banking to buy an animal farm in Sonoma County three years ago.

She also mentioned that it was her 53rd birthday when her gift watch’s alarm kept going off.

Earlier this month neighbors in the residential areas near Friedman’s proposed dispensary location mounted a visible and vocal opposition to her project.

In reference to the opposition, Friedman at the meeting said, “We want to address your concerns, and back them up with facts so everyone is comfortable. We want to be good neighbors, not a pot shop from years gone by.”

But her overtures did little to deter the many neighbors in attendance from reiterating their concerns about the proposed dispensary’s location – close to an apartment complex with “200 children,” at a school bus stop, amid a family-oriented neighborhood.

Indeed, the location is on a corner zoned for “limited commercial” use and surrounded on all sides by residential neighborhoods.

Sonoma County Cannabis Program Manager Tim Ricard confirmed that there was a required setback of 100 feet from residential districts for cannabis dispensaries, though that requirement could be waived in case of “an actual physical separation,” such as a wall. Ricard said the viability of any “physical separations” would be decided by the Board of Zoning Adjustments, the next stop in the approval process for Friedman.

The Apothevert presentation did include a rendering of a 6-foot fence around the building on the Madrone Road side, and considerable time was spent explaining the legal limitations on children entering the business or even being on the property, as well as a description of security measures and other code required steps to assure the safety of the business and its surroundings.

The march of 18 public commenters slanted heavily toward neighbors and their opposition, with only five comments in support, none from people who live in the Sonoma Valley.

“I’m 53, too, but I’m not a Harvard grad,” said Pam Palmgren, the first to speak. “But I do live in the neighborhood. I would not want any business to come into my neighborhood that requires security. Period. Period.”

Many others wished Friedman a happy birthday, and congratulated her on her professional presentation – then insisted it was the wrong place for a dispensary. “Take this plan and put it in another location,” said Lorena Reinhardt of Glen Ellen.

Even the commissioners went to great pains to applaud the presentation, while wrestling with an approval that would be re-evaluated in a year’s time, as cannabis licenses must be renewed.

Two of the commissioners even went so far as to hope a dispensary opened soon in Glen Ellen – “for obvious reasons,” said one. But even as the commissioners made their statements, it became clear approval would be narrow, if given at all.

“Your presentation could be a case study for business school,” said Commissioner Jack Ding. “Numbers are important, but sometimes feelings are even more important… We all love to travel, but nobody wants to live next to an airport.”

When the vote was called, the motion to approve Friedman’s application was denied, 4-5.

“I’m not done,” said Friedman when reached by phone on Thursday. “I’m a little bit set back today, it was a tough night – but I’m not done.”

After a recess, the fourth and last cannabis permit came up for discussion, and it was inevitably anti-climactic. Quinn McGetrick applied to grow cannabis in an indoor facility at 1201 E. MacArthur St., in a 10,840-square-foot building previously used for food production and processing. While three people spoke in opposition, the SVCAC voted to approve the project, 8-1.

Votes of the SVCAC are advisory only, and the next step in the permitting process is a hearing before the Board of Zoning Adjustments, whose decision does carry some weight – though it can be appealed to the Board of Supervisors. Both Friedman and McGetrick are expected to take their applications to the BZA next.

Contact Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.