BY ANGELINA MARTIN
The City of Turlock took steps forward in its cannabis pilot program on Tuesday as both the Planning Commission and City Council took action establishing where exactly in town its four future dispensaries can be located.
Following the recent adoption of the pilot program, the City last month began accepting Request for Qualifications from commercial cannabis stakeholders, establishing specific criteria and requirements meant to determine the most-qualified candidates. The City received a total of 40 responses, 31 of which were for cannabis retail/dispensary locations and one for a retail dispensary with accessory uses.
Interviews with the 32 dispensary candidates began this week and are expected to be completed by Friday, City Attorney Doug White said, with candidates who are moving forward in the process likely to be announced on Monday.
During a joint meeting between the Planning Commission and City Council on Tuesday, White said the overwhelming response to Turlock’s cannabis pilot program surprised even him. Turlock is the 10th city he’s helped to develop cannabis ordinances, and he expected anywhere from eight to 14 interested parties.
“Not in my wildest dreams would I expect 40,” White said.
In order to prepare for the incoming dispensaries, the Planning Commission voted 4-1 — with Commissioner Ray Souza voting dissenting — to approve a zoning ordinance permitting cannabis businesses in certain zoning districts.
The approved ordinance allows for cultivation, distribution and manufacturing cannabis businesses in areas zoned as heavy commercial/light industrial or general industrial, while retail cannabis sales, or dispensaries, are zoned as community commercial or heavy commercial/light industrial. Cannabis testing laboratories are to be allowed in commercial office, community commercial or heavy commercial/light industrial.
Cannabis businesses zoned as industrial will utilize Turlock’s Regional Industrial Park, but cannabis dispensaries will be prohibited in this area. They will, however, be allowed in Turlock’s downtown core.
In cities like Riverbank and Oakdale, dispensaries aren’t allowed downtown, though Riverbank has begun to ease its restrictions due to the positive effect its dispensary has had on the community, White said.
“Some of them were just afraid that having a cannabis business would affect the integrity of…some of their historic downtowns and there were concerns about the criminal element that might be brought into the downtown when you’re trying to revitalize it; it might make families feel less welcome,” White said. “In Riverbank, it’s probably had the opposite effect, but I think that those were the concerns that were brought up in terms of why other communities decided to not allow it.”
After thoughtful discussion, City staff decided to include downtown Turlock in the retail dispensary zoning options, White said. This doesn’t necessarily mean downtown will see dispensaries, White added, as every proposed business will be evaluated up to five times by the Planning Commission and City Council, giving plenty of time for those in opposition or in favor of said businesses to voice their opinions.
“Just because somebody is allowed to apply…does not mean that this body or this Council is going to approve that location,” White said. “Candidly, I don’t know what the reaction of the downtown business association is going to be. I don’t know what the reaction of the downtown folks is going to be; it may be positive; it may be negative.”
A lack of parking downtown may deter applicants from showing interest in the area, Councilmember Gil Esquer said, and White pointed out that a majority of the 32 applicants have included locations along Golden State Boulevard as their desired landing spots.
“I appreciate the fact that there’s some flexibility in the language and that everything that is opened and built comes to the Commission…That gives the community an opportunity to speak and gives us an opportunity to say, ‘Yes, this is a good location,’ or, ‘No, this is not a good location,’” Commissioner Jim Reape said. “I think it’s really important, especially in the initial years of this program…At this point, I appreciate that we’re going to get to see all of these.”
Neighboring residential zones of potential dispensary locations will also get a say in whether or not a cannabis business can open up next door, following a vote by the City Council during their regular meeting on Tuesday approving an amendment to the sensitive use requirements for the businesses.
Prior to Tuesday’s vote, cannabis dispensaries would not be allowed within 600 feet of a residential area. Due to the City’s unique land use, which sees community commercial plots in close proximity to residential areas, White said it would have made it almost impossible for cannabis dispensaries to find a location in town that met all of the requirements.
Instead, it will be up to dispensaries to earn the blessing of their neighbors in order to be approved by both the Planning Commission and the City Council.
“It became our determination as a staff that it made more sense to get rid of that 600 foot requirement from residential and have them evaluate it on a case-by-case basis, letting each project stand on its own and whether or not it can win over its neighbors and the folks in the community,” White said.
City staff also recommended to the Council that in addition to prohibiting dispensaries within 600 feet of a school, day care or youth facility, they also prohibit the retail sale of cannabis within 600 feet of emergency homeless shelters in town — a regulation that’s never been put into place in any of the other cities he’s worked in, White said.
Esquer motioned to remove the regulation from the ordinance, which Councilmember Nicole Larson seconded.
“I think that the cannabis business dispensaries are so well-controlled, that’s going to be the last place you see any homeless people show up,” Esquer said.
The ordinance clarifying the distance requirements was approved 4-1, with Mayor Amy Bublak, who has previously stated she wishes to follow federal law regarding cannabis, voting no.
“When you hear my no vote, so as not to be caught by surprise, any marijuana thing I’ve already voted no on, so I’ll continue to stick to my guidelines and beliefs,” Bublak said. “I’m not trying to change anyone else’s vote; I just want everybody to know why I’m going to continue to be a no.”