MERCED CITY COUNCIL:
Dispensary Debate Sent Back To Planning Commission

By JONATHAN WHITAKER
December 6, 2018

Follow the bouncing ball. That’s sorta what it’s been like with regard to Merced’s yearlong attempt to finalize the approval of four cannabis dispensaries and their locations within the city.

After rules were set down, and competitive bidding held, the Planning Commission and the City Council initially agreed on the business plans of the Top 4 companies allowed by an ordinance, however, a confusing haze immediately descended on the process after an appeal by the fourth and fifth-ranked firms, and a heated debate over proximity to a school, or education center.

Also, there’s evidence that a Planning Commission meeting in regard to the matter was conducted unfairly because the Chair did not disclose information on a personal contact he had with a property owner of one of the potential business sites.

During a special meeting Monday, the City Council unanimously sent back to the commission “a rehearing of the matter without participation of the Chair to ensure a fair process.”

In September, a special committee approved the four highest ranking marijuana dispensaries: Blue Fire at 1975 W. Olive Ave., Green Door at 811 W. Main St., Manzanita at 1594 W. 18th St., and Harvest of Merced at 863 W. 15th St.

But there was immediate controversy over whether fourth-place finisher Harvest of Merced, and fifth-place finisher Medallion Wellness (808 W. 16th St.), which was not approved, are within the 1,000-foot radius of a school — that’s not permitted under the city’s ordinance.

The school site, or education complex, in question is the Wolfe Education Center at 732 W. 13th Street. Independent surveyors disputed measurements made by city planners. Debate also ensued over whether the Wolfe Center should be considered a “school.”

On Oct. 25, the City Council reversed the fourth place approval during an appeal process and sent it back to the Planning Commission to determine whether or not the Wolfe Center falls under the school category in the ordinance. The commission ended up deciding that it was indeed a school.

Harvest of Merced appealed that decision, and on Monday afternoon, the City Council took up the issue again, hearing debate from Harvest and Medallion Wellness representatives.

They mostly took issue with the definition of a school in regard to permitting, and the Wolfe Education Center — where a number of year-round career and life management classes for adults are held, including “moderate to severe” Special Education students who have a right to public education until the age 22.

Experts were brought in or showed up, including Dr. Steve Gomes, the former superintendent of county schools, and Dr. Susan Coston, the current assistant superintendent of the county’s Special Education Department.

Gomes stressed the point that “a program is not a school,” and that the Wolfe Center site does not have a designated CDS code used to identify a school by the California Department of Education.

However, Coston fired back with a comprehensive explanation of the county’s Special Education strategy, and its unique school status that includes a central administration office on 13th Street in Merced, and 51 classrooms spread out throughout the county. Coston said the sites operate independently and cooperatively on public school campuses and other locations. All are considered part of the county’s Special Education “school,” and it receives funding based on attendance.

Pretty much the only thing Coston did not mention at the meeting is that without this distinct Office of Education setup, there would be a systematic hindrance to student integration, and Special Ed students and their families would be denied the experience and opportunities that can be shared on a traditional school campus.

Interestingly, Coston and Gomes have been on opposing sides before. The two ran against each other for the Superintendent of Schools position back in 2010.

Nevertheless, the school definition debate will probably continue because it was overshadowed at the Monday meeting by an admission from Robert Dylina, the chairman of the Planning Commission.

Dylina told the City Council that he had a conversation with Steve Tinetti, the property owner where Harvest of Merced wants to open. Dylina said the two talked about ownership and the possibility of lot line adjustments. This conversation was not disclosed at the last Planning Commission meeting that actually ruled against Harvest of Merced in regards to its proximity to a school.

While Dylina was part of that vote, Mayor Mike Murphy pointed out that a disclosure was not made — even though it appeared to be not intentional or deliberate.

And that’s why the City Council ultimately sent the matter back to the Planning Commission this week for a rehearing without Dylina involved.

Before they did that, however, Councilman Kevin Blake floated the idea that perhaps some sort of mitigation or agreement could be made involving Harvest of Merced and Medallion Wellness.

City Attorney Phaedra Norton and Mayor Murphy indicated the City Council does indeed have options, but they did not elaborate.

Could this mean that perhaps the city’s Cannabis Dispensary Ordinance might be amended to include a five dispensaries instead of four?

Don’t tune out. The next scheduled Planning Commission meeting is on Jan. 9.

Meanwhile, there is some good news for recreational pot smokers and medical marijuana patients in Merced.

The Top 3 dispensaries in the city’s process have been given the big green light to set up operations in town. City officials say they are all working on getting their state licenses and no opening dates have been announced — yet.

Arts Panel Taking Shape

The Merced City Council has approved the selection of several members for the new Arts and Cultural Advisory Commission, along with three ex-officio members and a Council member, who would also be an ex-officio member.

As part of the design, there will be six commission members to represent the six Council Districts, and one other member is at-large.

Some 22 people applied for the open positions.

The commission will serve in an advisory capacity to the council on matters pertaining to public art, art projects, cultural programs and activities and the promotion of the arts in the City.

The commission’s first meeting is scheduled for 3 p.m. on Jan. 10.

The following applicants were appointed to the Arts and Culture Advisory Commission:

District 1 – Dob Francise

District 2 – No appointment yet

District 3 – No appointment yet

District 4 – Colton Dennis

District 5 – Monika Saini

District 6 – Rob Hypes

At Large – Monica Modest

Ex-Officios:

1. Patricia Pratt

2. Kim Gardner

3. Harley Hermosillo

City Council Ex-Officio:

1. Anthony Martinez


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