Sunday, May 1, 2011

Medical-marijuana zoning rules pinch dispensaries

The era of medical marijuana is upon us, but rules imposed by the state and cities suggest that most Arizonans will never lay eyes on a marijuana dispensary, let alone a growing operation or infusion facility.

Because of restrictive zoning rules, most medical-marijuana sites will be situated in industrial areas, far from prying eyes, foot traffic and passing cars.

Cities made every effort to create distance between the marijuana operations and homes, schools, churches, parks and other similar facilities.

As a result, even though medical-marijuana locations are allowed in zoning categories that cover most shopping areas, the distancing rules pose a serious hurdle.

"The main issue for potential owners is that it is hard to find appropriate sites, considering the distance requirements," said Jordan Rose, an attorney who is representing numerous clients who want to get into the medical-marijuana business.

"While people may see that dozens of sites are being approved for use permits, they don't see the hundreds, maybe thousands of sites that have been vetted and rejected," he said. "It's a complicated analysis."

The analysis is so complex that when Phoenix puts out a map showing possible sites, people who have explored some of those locations have found that perhaps a church or a day-care center is too close. Either that or property owners decline to lease to medical-marijuana sites, fearing legal repercussions.

Rose says it appears cities want the facilities to be located in high-traffic areas for security reasons. But the spacing requirements end up forcing the facilities into areas with little car or foot traffic, off the beaten path.

Andrew Myers of the Arizona Medical Marijuana Policy Project expected and supports the tight restrictions. He suspects the rules will ease up over time, assuming the medical-marijuana system works properly.

It could be a tough hill to climb when ordinances such as Tempe's repeat several of the arguments against medical marijuana.

Medical marijuana "is correlated to myriad negative secondary effects," the Tempe ordinance reads, "such as an increase in violent armed robberies and murders, burglaries, traffic, noise and drug dealing."

Every municipality has similar rules, if not similar rhetoric to the Tempe ordinance. The rules typically address security issues and hours of operation as well as zoning areas and distance requirements.

Rules from the Arizona Department of Health Services restrict medical-marijuana facilities to one per Community Health Analysis Area but otherwise focus on operators and participants in the medical-marijuana process. The state has 126 CHAAs, 18 of them on tribal lands.

More than 40 of the sites are in the Valley, and almost half are in Phoenix.

Numerous problems are likely to arise. For example:

- Paradise Valley is considering a facility at a medical office at Tatum and Shea boulevards - a site that adjacent Phoenix probably would not have allowed. Similar problems could arise at other locations along CHAA boundaries.

- With restricted sites available, numerous operators have applied - and received - permits for sites that are relatively close to each other, despite the distancing requirements. For example, along Grand Avenue in Phoenix, close to a dozen sites are clustered. But the chances of any of them ever doing business are relatively slim. With one facility per CHAA, the state health department will choose the operator by lottery.

- Zoning restrictions will take some CHAAs out of the picture entirely. Such is the case with the central Mesa CHAA, bounded by Broadway and Brown roads, Country Club Drive and Bush Highway. No sites within that area fit the city's zoning ordinance, so no medical-marijuana facilities will be allowed.

- None of the zoning rules appears to allow challenges by medical-marijuana foes. Although permit hearings for most sites have seen no opposition, the rules give hearing officers, planning committees or city councils little leeway to deny requests, despite objection from such entities as golf-equipment manufacturer Ping in Phoenix or business owners in the Scottsdale Airpark. If the site conforms with the rules, the permits, letters of approval or other such documents are handed out.

Medical-marijuana operations are tightly restricted by rules from virtually every city in metro Phoenix, rules that limit the sites to heavier commercial or industrial zones, with distance requirements from homes, schools and churches, for example. Cities also require separation from other marijuana operations.

Arizona will allow one user within each Community Health Analysis Area, with 42 in the Valley. The Arizona Department of Health Services will select the sites by lottery in mid-August. This list is up to date as of Friday.

PhoenixAs many as 19 dispensaries or cultivation facilities.Phoenix has had more than 50 pre-applications; not all have sought use permits.Phoenix has strict distancing rules, ranging from 250 feet from homes to a quarter mile from schools, churches and parks.
ScottsdaleTwo facilities.Scottsdale has had 25 pre-applications; only one use permit granted so far.City zoning requires the dispensaries to be at least 500 feet from schools and residential areas, plus they cannot be within a quarter mile of another dispensary.
GoodyearOne facility.One applicant, several others expressing interest.Industrial only. Separation requirements of 1,000 feet from schools and churches; 500 feet from homes.
PeoriaAs many as seven CHAAs cross Peoria lines.One applicant so far.Facilities must be 1,000 feet from schools and day-care centers; 500 feet from homes. Dispensaries also would have to be 1,000 feet from other adult uses.
SurpriseTwo facilities.One applicant so far.Spacing of 1,500 feet from schools, day-care centers and parks; 500 feet from churches and homes.
MesaFive facilities, but only four meet other requirements.20 applicants.Industrial areas only, 2,400 feet from rehab facilities or correctional housing; 1,200 feet from churches, libraries and schools; 500 feet from day-care centers and preschools. Park distances vary.
TempeTwo facilities.48, but 34 of them did not meet zoning requirements.Quarter mile from schools, churches and parks; 500 feet from homes.
GlendaleThree facilities.Six applicants.Specific zoning areas only; quarter mile from schools; 500 feet from homes.
ChandlerTwo facilities.One applicant denied, two withdrew from consideration.Quarter mile from a school, public park, day-care center, church or library.

by Michael Clancy
The Arizona Republic May. 1, 2011 12:00 AM

Medical-marijuana zoning rules pinch dispensaries

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