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Sonoma’s City Council votes to put cannabis initiative on Nov. 2020 ballot

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Look for the Sonoma Citizens for Local Access initiative on the November ballot – November 2020, that is.

That was the result of a 90-minute special session of the Sonoma City Council, meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 24, when city officials convened for a presentation of the study the council had ordered on July 23 to evaluate a proposed initiative to allow cannabis cultivation and licensed dispensaries within the city limits. Petitioners, led by Sonoma cannabis entrepreneur Jon Early, gathered more than 750 certified signatures, in the hopes of qualifying the initiative for the November 2018 ballot. But on July 23, the City Council voted to conduct a study on the initiative’s possible effects, postponing its ballot appearance beyond 2018.

Following the presentation of the study, the four member council – with Councilmember Amy Harrington absent – would consider two options: either adopt the petition as written as a city ordinance, or schedule it for a future election.

The study was presented by Mark Lovelace, a cannabis policy adviser for HdL Companies, and Christine Crowl of Jarvis Fay & Gibson, the two companies contracted by the city to evaluate the initiative.

Crowl’s report was on the legal ramifications of the land use section of the initiative.

“Just as a general land-use impact takeaway,” said Crowl, “I wanted to start by indicating that the initiative allows commercial cannabis businesses throughout the entire commercial zone with no discretionary review by the City… only requiring a zoning clearance.”

Added Crowl: “This is not the approach that’s taken by most local jurisdiction."

Crowl said it’s more common for cities to allow a “competitive application process” or discretionary permit review by city officials, sometimes both.

She said the initiative as written also allows for the “clustering” of various cannabis businesses – cultivation, manufacturing, testing and distribution – again at odds with most jurisdictions. As such, Crowl continued, “Local control for this council to determine whether clustering was appropriate for the city of Sonoma is no longer an option for you” if the initiative were made law.

The study highlighted additional zoning issues, internal inconsistencies and other ambiguities – such as “self-certification” of cannabis businesses and outdoor cultivation.

Next in the presentation, Mark Lovelace introduced himself as an eight-year member of the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors, which gave him “a little bit of familiarity with this issue,” he said.

His testimony focused on the fiscal impact of the initiative, were it to become law, and a market analysis to see how the initiative would play out, especially with its lack of limitations. “Regulations are only one of the forces that determine where businesses locate, and market forces are going to be a huge piece of that,” he said.

His analysis concluded that, despite the lack of limitations in the initiative, “we don’t think the city’s going to be overrun with these businesses – the biggest constraint is the availability and affordability of these spaces.”

Using projections based on market assumptions, and average taxation and fee revenues, he estimated, “The city may be able to generate between $164,00 and $328,000 in annual revenues, from some combination of one or two retailers and one or two small boutique-type manufacturers.” The initiative’s lack of any fees or taxation clauses means that revenue needs would have to be added by the city in subsequent action.

But perhaps more than inconsistencies in the initiative or the potential clustering of cannabis businesses, it was the loss of local control that struck home with the council members.

After voting 4-0 to accept the study – which cost the city over $25,000 to conduct – City Attorney Jeff Walter outlined the alternatives the council faced on putting it up for public vote: call a regular election – which would be Nov. 3, 2020 – or a special election, to be held in the next 88 to 103 days from the meeting.

City Clerk Rebekah Barr estimated the cost of a special election would a range between $38,825 and $70,590, based on figures she had received from the County of Sonoma.

During council member comments, Councilmember David Cook criticized the “bullying” council members have received since their initial July 23 decision to postpone the initiative beyond the 2018 election.

“The city council did not do anything wrong,” said Cook. “The only thing we did wrong is that a small percentage of this society didn’t like the vote, and they bully.”

Cook and Councilmember Gary Edwards voiced their support for the November 2020 election option.

Councilmember Rachel Hundley, who had originally supported sending the initiative to the November 2018 election, commented that the study could have been conducted simultaneously with placing it on the upcoming ballot. She said the impetus for the petition drive in the first place was the City’s lack of movement on cannabis issues.

"In the vacuum created by the lack of City Council action on an issue, it opens the door for initiatives that are born out of very particular interests,” said Hundley. “And not overall what is best for the community.”

She said she “find any of the choices to be acceptable,” and would abstain from the vote.

In the end, Mayor Madolyn Agrimonti joined Cook and Edwards and in a 3-0-1 vote directed staff to place the initative on the 2020 ballot.

Contact Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.