What a Difference a Year Makes –  Mt. Hope Gets the Cannabis Outlet They Want

by on January 3, 2023 · 0 comments

in Civil Rights, San Diego

The successful applicants and their Mt. Hope supports outside the planning commission after victory on Dec 8, 2022.

By Terrie Best / Exclusive to OB Rag / Jan. 3, 2023

When the city of San Diego first began permitting cannabis consumer outlets under the conditional use permit process or CUP, a lot of the conversation began at the community level within the Community Planning Groups. There are roughly 42 CPGs recognized by the city and very few ever embraced cannabis outlets.

Until recently only one, the Barrio Logan group, which voted to recommend approval for Harbor Collective, had acted favorably. Conversely, the San Ysidro group was so mad they coordinated an effort to bring kids in matching t-shirts to an appeal against a cannabis outlet in their region. That appeal was lost and Pacific Southwest patient, now Urbn Leaf, opened.

The Community Planning Groups’ collective thumbs down have largely been overridden by a thumbs up from our Planning Department Hearing Officers. All cannabis CUP projects have a hearing which is the phase of the permitting process that has teeth and can ruin a project. Additionally, once the Hearing Officer approves a cannabis outlet project, there is then an opportunity for any citizen to appeal the project. And appeal they did. So far, 34 cannabis retail projects have been appealed. Appellants ranged from NIMBYS or cannabis prohibitionists who hate cannabis until the end and will wear matching t-shirts to tell you about it, to the agents of competing cannabis outlets in the area of the hopeful project. These appeals rarely reached the city’s level of proof required to be successful and cost taxpayers so much in time and resources that the city had to increase the appeal fee from 100 to 1000 dollars.

Still, once a project is appealed a hearing date is set and the project principles along with the appellants go before the wider Planning Commission to decide the appeal. The Commission members have changed over the years but not the deep understanding most have had of the importance of regulating rather than banning cannabis retail activity.  In the past, Commissioners have even admonished the fear-mongers with one commissioner calling the appellants “obstacles to public safety.”

In light of all this, it was a pleasant surprise to hear that November 14th, the Southeastern San Diego Planning Group voted 8 to 2 to recommend approval of a CUP for a retail cannabis outlet at 955 Gateway Center Way in the Mount Hope neighborhood. Due to the work of neighborhood activists and organizations such as Millennium Hippie and Paving Great Futures, there is a nearly united front in the messaging when it comes to cannabis in Mount Hope, “No cannabis outlets allowed who aren’t focused on social equity and neighborhood enrichment.”  This neighborhood organizing contributed to stopping a previous applicant to Gateway last January due to the applicants lack of engagement with the community and no plan for equity. It should be noted, both the city and county are working on social equity programs to address inequality in the cannabis industry.

Engaging Community Planners Groups is not a required part  of the process to obtain a conditional land use permit. The ordeal you will go through if you want to sell cannabis in the city of San Diego is onerous. Here’s the chain of events for a process three CUP: Find a property and engage the CPG (not required). Have a hearing before a Hearing Officer and get approved or denied; if you are approved, get appealed by your competitor or NIMBY; get another date where the appeal is granted or denied by the Planning Commission in a full hearing.

So when the Gateway project took their turn for a CUP at the building on Gateway Center Way they had already developed and were implementing their neighborhood outreach in Mount Hope.  The new applicants had their public hearing on November 16th knowing the community was with them and the hearing officer recommended approval of their project.  Never-the-less one appeal was filed immediately and, per the staff presentation,  one appellant waited until two minutes before the deadline to file.

A possible reason for this late filing suggests this was in hopes of  using the newly drawn council districts to run out the clock on the Gateway project. The address of the project was placed in District 9 when the new district lines went into effect on December 12. Because cannabis outlets are capped at four per district and District 9 already has four outlets, the redistricting date would have been fatal to the Gateway project after implementation.

Since the first appeal was filed in a timely manner, that strategy did not play out.

As is the CUP process, the two appeals of the Gateway Cannabis Outlet project pushed the matter to the wider Planning Commission on December 8th – just days before the redistricting. Planning Commission appeals are open to the public and to public comment. During the hearing of the appeals it was revealed the first appellant had resolved their issue and abandoned their appeal. However, the second appellant, Shaun Chamberlain – who filed his appeal at the final hour – would be heard. It was asserted later but not by Chamberlain that Chamberlain’s appeal was filed on behalf of cannabis outlet Goldn Bloom which will be the Gateway project’s nearest competitor.

The Planning Commission discussed that this wasn’t the first round at attempts for obtaining a permit for this property. Harvest, a multi-state operator, had last January all but been chased away by Mount Hope’s neighborhood group and the Southeast CPG which voted 5-2 against an  approval recommendation for the previous CUP. The difference between the two permit hopefuls, besides the year, became obvious at the planning commission meeting. Harvest had not engaged the neighborhood at all and the neighborhood united to push them away, while, after Harvest abandoned the project, the new applicants, Prime Harvest D9, had multiple meetings with all concerned parties and integrated the needs of the community into their project.

This time around, the neighborhood groups showed at the Public Hearing and at the Appeal Hearing and spoke in-favor of the applicants and in opposition of the appeal. At appeal hearings, the public fills-out forms marked that they “Oppose” the appeal or are “In-Favor” of the appeal. The only form in-favor was from the appellant Shaun Chamberlain in-favor of his own appeal. Sharon Whitehurst-Payne, who represents southeastern (DE) San Diego on the Board of Education stood at the podium to remind us of neighborhood neglect and say that she would not oppose and may support the Gateway project should they do what they have offered. Quite a few community members spoke, quite a few more turned in slips that they opposed the appeal but they didn’t speak.  The slip ratio was dozens to one. Not typical which is why this is so interesting.

Chamberlain’s appeal was lengthy and full of errors. It was hard not to look at him while his issues were being thoroughly debunked by the heads of the project and city staff. Apparently it amounted to sour grapes that his last minute appeal didn’t run out the redistricting clock.  The 110 page appeal stated he is a landowner in Mount Hope and the Gateway Cannabis CUP would be “detrimental to the health and safety of the neighborhood.” Six more grievances regarding paperwork technicalities that the city staff outlined then shot down as not meeting the criteria of a valid appealable issue.

The new applicants are Black, one is a woman vet.  Since 2017 they have been running a successful cannabis business in Ramona as one of the five county cannabis retailers. They had hours of meetings and answered questions from the Mount Hope leaders and residents before they got to the Public Hearing. The two partners in the project described being involved with community efforts and at the Appeal Hearing announced they have instituted the Mount Hope Community Alliance Program to specifically address integrating with and elevating Mount Hope. They plan to leverage resources to shore up the community and participate in initiatives already in play such as park beautification and more robust business security.

At the Planning Commission Appeal Hearing December 8th, public comment from the Mount Hope leaders and residents revealed the beating the community has taken, not just from the over-policing, which the city will address formally with their social equity plan, but by corporations who come into Mount Hope and take from the neighborhood but don’t hire or give back to the economy. At the podium, Charles Alexander, who leads Mount Hope neighborhood group, described the generosity and engagement from the Gateway applicants already. The commissioners themselves acknowledged the community engagement and expressed hope for the efforts.

After sincere comments about his pleasure at seeing the community members approve of the Gateway Project, Commissioner Kenneth Malbrough made a motion to deny the appeal against Prime Harvest D9 and several commissioners clamored to second the motion. I got a sense the commissioners were extremely pleased that since last year the community didn’t support cannabis but they had found a cannabis project that they could get behind. It must be gratifying as a public servant to see two sides come together in such a harmonious way and be able to contrast that with last year’s strife. Commissioner Dennis Otsuji revealed he and Commissioner Malbrough grew up in Mount Hope and how honored he was to serve. William Hofman, the chair of the commission confessed he led the opposition last year because the community, now in-favor, had been so vehemently opposed to the type of cannabis retail they didn’t want, William Hofman said “what a difference a year makes.” They all smiled and voted to deny Chamberlain’s appeal.

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