It’s no secret that the cannabis industry is very white; a mere 1% of all legal dispensary owners in the US are black. Los Angeles is working with California Minority Alliance to aid social equity and ensure inclusivity in the cannabis industry for minorities that were disproportionately targeted by the war on drugs. Government officials across California are looking to introduce legislation that would work to include minorities in the opportunities of the growing cannabis industry. Lemon Grove may have missed the point.
In Lemon Grove so far, 18 properties have been submitted for zoning clearance. Four properties have successfully passed zoning clearance. One of the four applicants, a white man, has been given the authority to move forward with his CUP application. The other applicants, most of them minorities, have been denied the ability to begin the CUP process. The three applicants are being denied the ability to move forward despite meeting the zoning requirements.
On July 18th, 2017, Cynthia Morgan Reed spoke to Lemon Grove city staff and council on the record;
“The city treats a zoning clearance like a conditional use permit. You heard my client testify that they had to spend over $75,000 just to apply for a zoning clearance letter, which is technically a ministerial permit, but the city has treated it like a conditional use permit. City staff told the applicants, all applicants frankly, that they could not apply and could not even try to get a zoning clearance letter unless they submitted all of the materials that would be necessary for a conditional use permit. We believe again that this has expended needless financial resources, and for a ministerial permit that has denied the client their equal protection rights.”
Cynthia Morgan Reed’s argument is valid; why is Lemon Grove requiring applicants to submit their full CUP application in order for their zoning clearance to be approved, when zoning clearance exists only to determine whether a property is within proper distance from protected or sensitive uses?
Chris Williams is one of the applicants who believes his due process is being blocked.
Mr. Williams is a black entrepreneur who has submitted three commercial properties to Lemon Grove for zoning clearance. Mr. David De Vries of the Development Services Department originally denied zoning clearance for 6915 North Ave. Williams appealed the decision on September 19, 2017 and won. The 4-0 vote from city council was to approve an appeal of a zoning clearance denial allowing the applicant to apply for a conditional use permit to establish a medical marijuana dispensary.
On October 3rd, Lemon Grove city staff adopted the resolutions that solidified Williams’ zoning clearance for 6915 North Ave.
Screenshot from the October 3rd, 2017 “Minutes of a Meeting of the Lemon Grove City Council.”
After his zoning clearance was approved, it would seem that Williams should have been allowed to move forward with the conditional use permit application. Instead, he has been asked to re-submit his zoning clearance application.
As it has been understood, zoning clearance is a preliminary screen; it is a ministerial permit. To pass, the property must be located within an industrial or commercial zone and must be 1,000 ft from any sensitive or protected uses, such as schools or parks.
After zoning clearance approval, applicants can submit for a conditional use permit. This step requires a $1,500 deposit to defray the cost of investigating and reviewing the CUP application. Again, applicants can only apply for a CUP after zoning clearance is passed.
The two-step process is clear. The convolution comes from Lemon Grove city staff haphazardly requiring CUP application information in order to receive zoning clearance approval. By taking these unnecessary stipulations onto the zoning clearance applications, city staff is able to effectively delay dispensaries from opening; thus denying safe and legal access to medical marijuana patients in Lemon Grove.
In a similar instance, Ebon Johnson attempted to appeal his denial of zoning clearance to Lemon Grove City Council on July 18th, 2017. Ebon Johnson is a black business owner that owns and operates Mankind Cooperative, a legal MMD in San Diego. At his appeal hearing, Johnson had the chance to speak:
“No other business has or will ever have to go through a process like this… On my first day investigating Lemon Grove’s MMD process… city staff expressed to me they were annoyed this ballot was on the measure. Staff and council, I know not being familiar with this culture, you have to move cautiously, but we cannot, however, change the rules to make barriers for one group of people just because we are uncomfortable. This is the very definition of discrimination.” – Ebon Johnson
Ebon Johnson, via pointlomadem.org
Johnson continued “…anyone could recognize that this process is flawed…We only ask that this process be without prejudice, discrimination, and [with] complete transparency.”
Johnson’s lawyer, Cynthia Morgan Reed then spoke to city staff. “Our due process and due diligence opportunity has been denied to us, in addition to unequal protection under the law.”
At this meeting, when asked whether the zoning clearance was a ministerial permit, not a CUP application, the Lemon Grove City Attorney, James Lough, responded that “It’s a condition precedent to moving forward; it’s not like a CUP where you’re weighing and trying to figure out which conditions. It’s a zoning clearance issue, it’s not a CUP. The question is whether you meet the standards or not, that’s what you’re trying to determine tonight. Whether you meet the standards.”
In the end, Johnson’s appeal was denied.
Lemon Grove city staff’s decision to inconsistently handle zoning clearances and stall applications may be a denial of due process. Chris Williams, Ebon Johnson, and other dispensary applicants are being ostracized and way-sided. These business owners deserve equal treatment under the law. Although disheartening to the community, city staff’s actions are not entirely shocking. Lemon Grove city staff has recently been accused of discrimination. City Councilman Jerry Jones and city manager Lydia Romero are currently facing a lawsuit for squelching free speech.
* On numerous occasions, I reached out to Developmental Services Director David De Vries for a statement on the issue. I have not received any response from De Vries.
Chris Williams is a founder of Candid Chronicle.