High Stakes, The Wall of Separation Between Church and State

Cannabis dispensaries opening near churches continue to be a point of contention in San Diego. In Rancho Bernardo, cannabis dispensary applicant Will Senn constructed a 65 ft fence to increase the path of travel distance between his proposed dispensary and Hope United Methodist Church. Despite an initial perception that the church welcomed the fence, Hope United is fighting against the dispensary by way of appeals.

San Diego dispensaries must be located 1,000 ft or more from sensitive use locations such as schools, daycares, recovery facilities, parks, and churches. The municipality’s method of measurement used to determine the distance between dispensaries and sensitive use locations is “Path of Travel,” meaning that public right of way is taken into consideration. The 65 ft fence that was constructed brings the distance between the proposed dispensary site and the church to just over 1,000 ft. However, the church and church supporters have continued to contest the dispensary.

The type of fence Senn constructed didn’t require any permitting, although he did note that the city did give them some trouble with the process.

“I hope in the future we can revise the sensitive use locations and buffers. I personally don’t believe a church should be a qualified sensitive use. If there are other factors on the church prop, daycares, et cetera, I understand that,” Senn told Candid Chronicle.

Will Senn is the founder of UrbnLeaf, a prominent SD dispensary with four operating locations in San Diego. Urbn Leaf will be opening locations in La Mesa, Vista, as well as North Los Vegas within the coming months. The Rancho Bernardo location has been a long time coming.

Senn says he’d been searching for the proper Rancho Bernardo dispensary property for five years before securing the current “needle in the haystack” location. The proposed dispensary location (16375 Bernardo Center Drive) was once an El Torito restaurant; the building stands alone on its own parcel at the end of a business center.

Senn believes that the dispensary is a good fit for the area and that there’s no question that the Rancho Bernardo community would benefit from a local pot shop.

According to Will, Urbn Leaf Bay Park has consistent return customers from Rancho Bernardo and surrounding neighborhoods. Rancho Bernardo has no dispensaries, and driving to the nearest dispensary from Rancho Bernardo can take anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour, depending on traffic. That’s not to mention those who don’t have a vehicle and rely on public transportation. Urbn Leaf, which has partnered with Eaze for their dispensary deliveries, also receives many deliveries to the Rancho Bernardo area.

As reported by SDUT, Hope United officials are concerned that dispensary customers will end up smoking cannabis in their parking lot.

As far as Urbn Leaf’s relationship with Hope United Methodist Church goes, Senn says he had thought the church was happy when the fence was first being constructed. The fence increases safety in the area by impeding people from walking directly into a drive aisle where no sidewalk exists. The fence also prohibits general foot traffic from entering the church property.

As a longstanding member of the San Diego cannabis industry and proponent of Safe Access, Will is hopeful for a positive outcome from the church debacle and confident that Urbn Leaf can be of service to the local community.

“You can trust that everything you buy from our store is safe and priced appropriately. We don’t mark things up crazy amounts, it’s a simple retail business model,” Senn continues, “We want our customers to feel comfortable visiting our stores and want them to be able to trust every product on our menu.”

Senn says that Urbn Leaf “fully intends to be the best neighbors possible,” to Hope United, continuing that, “If there are concerns, we will do whatever’s in our power to mediate and come to a resolution.”

The Rancho Bernardo Urbn Leaf application is still under review and will be discussed publicly during an upcoming city council meeting. While Senn described that there has been a public outcry from church supporters, he also explained that those who are in need of a dispensary in Rancho Bernardo haven’t been as vocal in council meetings.

The Rancho Bernardo fence construction could serve as a solution for other dispensaries facing zoning clearance issues and likewise could lead to municipalities amending their codes to prevent this ordinance workaround.

The high stakes are leading dispensary applicants to become creative and dig deep into zoning regulations to call the legality of church operations into question. Some dispensaries within 1,000 ft of churches in San Diego have recently been approved upon findings that the church properties were in violation of a city permit or operating on a flood plain.

At least two churches in San Diego have taken offers from dispensary owners to relocate their premises in a buyout.

“This industry has taught me to be extremely resilient. It’s not for the faint of heart; there’s not this big pot of gold at the end of the tunnel. We’re working off the backs who have given up their freedom for this plant, and we can’t forget that. There are some operators who are not familiar with the history of this industry, and that’s unfortunate. We hope that some of those bottlenecks of the operating in the industry get unclogged,” says Senn.