Sunday, March 27, 2011

Phoenix medical marijuana locations reflect restrictive zoning

The first five medical marijuana dispensaries approved in Phoenix are confined to office and industrial parks, an early indication that Phoenix's new zoning rules for the dispensaries are so restrictive that few, if any, outlets will be located anywhere near the people who need them.

Because of distance requirements from homes, churches, schools and parks, some real-estate attorneys believe there is virtually no retail site throughout the city that would meet the requirements.

Indeed, the first item on a zoning adjustment hearing agenda last week was withdrawn because the site was too close, by a matter of a few feet, to a day-care center.

The potential operators of medical marijuana dispensaries must go through a zoning adjustment hearing to get a use permit, as required by the city's zoning ordinance. Besides the spacing requirements, the ordinance lists numerous other restrictions, from limiting the size of the buildings to setting hours.

But the spacing requirements pose the most serious problem for those wishing to get into the business.

The withdrawn item was for a dispensary at 3217 E. Shea Blvd., in a northeast Phoenix strip mall east of Uncle Sam's restaurant. It is isolated from homes - the nearest are on the other side of the Arizona 51 freeway, beyond a second strip shopping center. The nearest school property is Shadow Mountain High School, just outside the quarter-mile limit. The nearest church, Christ the King Lutheran on 32nd Street, is outside the 500-foot limit. The closest parks are a mile away.

It all looked good until city officials determined Little Treasures Learning Center, 10220 N. 32nd St., was barely inside the quarter-mile limit.

An adult probation office and at least a dozen liquor licensees are closer to the day-care center.

"When the maps were developed, planners did not realize how restrictive they would be," said Andrew Myers, executive director of the Arizona Medical Marijuana Association. "Almost all in-line retail space (strip malls) violates the spacing requirements."

Phoenix City Councilman Bill Gates represents the district where the withdrawn location is situated. He said it was never the council's intent to be so restrictive. If it had been, he said, it would have used its zoning categories, not spacing requirements.

Larry Tom, a city planner who has been focused on medical marijuana zoning, doubts the rules are so restrictive. If they are, he said, the council asked for a review after a year, and they could be adjusted.

Only 10 medical marijuana permit requests have been scheduled for hearings. Seven of the first nine sailed through the approval process, with two that were withdrawn.

The 10th is scheduled to be heard Thursday morning.

At least three of the sites approved a week ago are within a single community health analysis area - areas set up by the Arizona Department of Health Services that are restricted to a single medical marijuana use.

Such siting rules could limit the number of medical marijuana providers overall. In addition, some of the urban community health areas may not have any sites that work.

Myers said he is not surprised about the location problems. Because medical marijuana is a new phenomenon, such rules were expected.

"These restrictions may not be permanent," he said. "Once medical marijuana has become an established business, it could become better."

by Michael Clancy The Arizona Republic Mar. 22, 2011 10:30 AM

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