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News: 10/15/2010

Medical marijuana dispensary proposed for Melita Rd./Hwy 12

Space in the Valley of the Moon Plaza, a small commercial center at the corner of Sonoma Highway and Melita Rd., may be the next location for a medical marijuana dispensary if the operators get approval for a use permit.

The Valley of the Moon Collective has already put their sign in the window and done some tenant improvements, but county planning officials have told them they can’t open up until they obtain a use permit and show that they meet the standards detailed in the county’s medical marijuana dispensary ordinance.

The small shopping strip currently houses an insurance office, frame shop, dry cleaner, and a martial arts studio, as well as a gas station and mini-market.

Joy Mukherji, one of the owners of Valley of the Moon Plaza, said she has had difficulty filling the space, which has been vacant for three years since a coffee shop closed.

She said she doesn’t know much about the details about what the Valley of the Moon Collective is planning, but that dispensaries “seem to be popping up all over the place.” Mukherji said the operators have told her the location would also be used as a holistic healing facility as well as a community garden. She said she has not yet signed a lease with the Valley of the Moon Collective, and that she wants to make sure they “dot all their i’s and cross all their t’s” before opening.

Monica Miramontez, who has run a Tae Kwon Do studio for eight years just a few spaces down from the proposed dispensary, thinks her business will be negatively affected. She said about 100 of her clients are children.

“To put in a dispensary 100 feet away from children is kind of irresponsible,” said Miramontez. She said she’s afraid the dispensary will bring around “riff-raff” and that “no parent will want to bring their kids to our facility with this right next door. They can do whatever they want, but just not around the kids.”

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a medical marijuana dispensary zoning ordinance in 2007, which allowed dispensaries in certain unincorporated areas of the county with a use permit. The regulations state that a dispensary cannot be within one thousand feet of any public school, park, or a public or private establishment “that caters to or provides services primarily to persons under 18 years of age.”

The ordinance also requires any dispensary to submit an extensive operating plan, which, in part, details security measures, number of patients and employees, and ID and doctor’s recommendation requirements.

The ordinance was challenged by a local dispensary, charging that medical marijuana establishments shouldn’t have to be required to get a special permit from the county, and that the county was making it too difficult for dispensaries to find locations to operate.

In December of last year, a Sonoma County Superior Court judge ruled that the ordinance was invalid, putting the county’s ability to regulate dispensaries in a state of legal confusion as the decision was appealed. About six dispensaries opened up in unincorporated areas of the county after the ruling.

In June, a state appellate court issued an order that effectively reinstated the ordinance temporarily, thus allowing the county to renew its requirement for use permits. A final decision by the appellate court is still pending, with oral arguments scheduled for Nov. 17.

According to county code enforcement officials, there is one location within the county’s jurisdiction that has a use permit, on E. Todd Rd. There are eight locations that are currently in the use permit pipeline or are planning to apply.

Scot Candell, an attorney for the Valley of the Moon Collective, said he believes the Melita Rd./Sonoma Highway location, “absolutely fits within the guidelines of the ordinance.”

Other jurisdictions in the county – cities – have handled the issue of medical marijuana dispensaries differently. Some do not allow them within city limits, like Sonoma, Petaluma, Rohnert Park, Windsor and Healdsburg. Some allow them, with limits, like Cotati, Santa Rosa and Sebastopol.

Sonoma County First District Supervisor Valerie Brown said her office has gotten a number of inquiries about the proposed dispensary at Valley of the Moon Plaza.

“I think, like any neighbor having to deal with a business they didn’t expect to be there, people are calling my office asking questions,” said Brown. “Some are incensed about putting a dispensary in the neighborhood. Others are just in the middle of the fact finding process.”

Brown said she hasn’t looked carefully at whether or not the location fits the parameters of the county’s ordinance. Brown said that she and the board of supervisors support having marijuana available for medical reasons, but that regulations, like the county’s ordinance, need to be in place to make sure dispensaries are in appropriate spots.

Brown also said there would be plenty of opportunity for people to weigh in on the proposal, and that the use permit process can often be lengthy.

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