County rolls new measures into cannabis permitting program

The County Board of Supervisors approved changes to the county’s Cannabis Permitting Program in an effort to enhance safety, support unincorporated communities and develop a youth cannabis prevention curriculum, in an item brought forth by Supervisor Joel Anderson at the June 15 board meeting. The proposed changes do not alter policy but add additional measures to the county’s Cannabis Permitting Program Environmental Impact Report and the Socially Equitable Cannabis Program.

The cannabis permitting program dates back to January 2021 and was developed with a focus on business opportunities while simultaneously addressing historically social inequity. However, Anderson said, more must be done in the unincorporated areas to keep communities safe and improve social outcomes.

Last Wednesday’s proposition included 16 measures within three areas of exploration: design-related actions related to the environmental impact of cannabis businesses, program considerations based on community research, and items which would require cost analysis.

Several items within Anderson’s 16-point proposition would ensure cannabis businesses located in unincorporated communities answer to the same requirements as those located within the city of San Diego, such as increasing the setback of cannabis facilities near sensitive land uses like childcare centers and schools from 600 feet to 1,000 feet. Billboards would also have a minimum 1,000 foot setback from sensitive use locations and the list of what constitutes sensitive use spaces would expand to include locations frequently accessed by children and young adults such as public libraries and parks.

Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer, who primarily oversees coastal San Diego county, questioned why senior living facilities would be included as sensitive use areas when some of those residents might be medical marijuana users, but Anderson said that measure came directly from constituent feedback.

Nearly half the measures would require the county department of Planning and Development Services to conduct community research and return to the board within a year with options for direction.

Among those items: design related sections of the plan include limiting how many cannabis businesses can be placed in each community based on geography and population size. The plan called for a design guideline checklist with criteria which “could prohibit such designs that include, but are not limited to, bright colors and misleading facility names” while preserving community character.

“Rural communities have rules and regulations they use to maintain their rural atmosphere. We don’t want a Las Vegas style facility moving in with bright lights where we have the ability to see stars at night,” Anderson said.

The proposition suggests a limit on consumption lounges in the unincorporated areas.

“When you look at San Diego, they’ve done it; La Mesa has done it and so has Chula Vista,” Anderson said.

The Supervisor also said the county needs to define “what constitutes a cannabis event” so small communities do not become a destination for events which could “destroy the rural charm” of unincorporated San Diego county.

A Community Equity Contribution Program, to be funded by the County, would also be worked into the program and would include community discussions on potential permit fee waivers through incentives that would instead provide direct benefits to individual communities like Community Benefit Agreements.

“We can cut costs and help people who have been denied access to this market with starting and growing their business— and we should— but we also have to pass on community contributions. Unincorporated communities receive approximately 30% fewer resources than their neighboring incorporated communities. That’s inequity,” Anderson said.

The plan asks the county to analyze costs for segments of the proposition such as working with researchers to develop evidence-based cannabis use prevention programs for schools; Anderson said Santa Ana, Los Angeles and Humboldt county have all developed programs of that ilk.

Cost-based analysis would also extend to exploring ways to incentivize local facility ownership and explore guidelines for business license transfers.

During time for public comments, JWA land use planning firm owner James Whalen said he was glad to see illegal pot shops closed down in East and South county, and hopes the county will continue to crack down on illegal businesses as the legal ones cannot compete with their lower pricing schemes. Additionally, he encouraged the county to permit legal businesses in such a way that illegal shops don’t have any opportunity to set up shop out of market availability.

Land use attorney Gina Austin said she has been involved with the cannabis space since about 2013 and has found comparing ‘path of travel’ with ‘property line’ boundaries makes a big difference in many California jurisdictions.

“Staff should have some ability to work with that. There are frequent instances where a property might border on a sensitive use property but there is a freeway in between,” or other unique limitations, Austin said.

North County’s Supervisor Jim Desmond said it is important to remember increased setbacks which might be significant in more urban cities are not as big a concern in the unincorporated areas, despite several callers who said increasing those requirements would make it all but impossible to find a suitable cannabis business location.

Cannabis justice advocate Anthony Avalos called in to the meeting and said the proposal is premature and asked the board to reject it in full.

Community figure Armand King also called in and asked the board to reject the proposition he said is racist.

“I want to call a spade a spade. Everything I just heard is blatantly coded racism. Let’s not confuse what social equity is— it is righting the wrongs of the failed war on drugs that highly impacted Black people, Black communities, not to reinvest into rural communities. Let’s not mix the two up. What you’re talking about is pure coded racism and it is not okay,” King said.

In a board discussion, Anderson said one primary concern he has is the high number of unincorporated county residents who are “relegated to second class citizens” with less stringent policies and more limited resources than residents in incorporated San Diego.

During discussion, Board Chair Nathan Fletcher said there are many good points within the plan and he would like to see what staff returns with.

Ultimately, the proposition passed 4-0 with Supervisor Nora Vargas not present for the meeting.


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