Day care centers in La Mesa and Lemon Grove have been getting some strange offers. Marijuana entrepreneurs have been knocking on their doors, offering the owners money and other deals to either relocate or shut down.
Last year, residents in both cities voted to allow medical marijuana dispensaries. But the measures prohibit dispensaries from being too close to places like schools, churches, public parks and day care centers.
It turns out that’s more restrictive than you might realize — small, in-home day care centers are all over the place. In small cities like Lemon Grove, there aren’t many properties that are more than 1,000 feet away from one.
That’s a problem as a green rush envelops the state, with entrepreneurs rushing to scoop up real estate to cash in on the booming marijuana business.
Voters approved Proposition 64 last year, clearing the way for recreational marijuana in the state in 2018, but the law left regulating the industry up to local municipalities. Some cities and counties looking to reap the economic benefits of legal pot are passing new ordinances and regulations to help pot people navigate laws and figure out exactly where they can open up shop. Others haven’t shown the same excitement.
The slow roll-out of regulations has left would-be pot business owners champing at the bit for commercial property in cities like La Mesa and Lemon Grove that have spelled out clear rules.
Finding space for a legal dispensary is made even more challenging because of a state law that mandates the addresses of in-home day cares be kept confidential to protect people’s privacy. The issue has led Lemon Grove city officials to create a wacky, barely readable medical marijuana zoning map that obscures the more than 70 in-home day care addresses by putting pink blobs around exact locations, but also makes it hard to figure out where dispensaries are actually allowed.
Lemon Grove and La Mesa started accepting medical marijuana dispensary applications in March. Neither city has yet to approve a single application.
Business owners submitted 17 applications for medical marijuana dispensaries in Lemon Grove, but just three are advancing toward approval. The rest of the applications were denied, mostly because they were too close to in-home day care centers. Four of those denials have been appealed, and one was upheld by the Lemon Grove City Council last month. The other three are scheduled to make their cases in front of the City Council on Aug. 15.
Some marijuana entrepreneurs have taken the issue into their own hands, hitting the streets to find small day care centers to try and make deals. One day care provider, in a letter to the city of Lemon Grove, gave a detailed account of her bizarre interactions with a medical marijuana dispensary owner who wanted her to move her business in exchange for money and things like tickets to the San Diego County Fair.
La Mesa has a better zoning map that makes it easier to find places where dispensaries are allowed while keeping day care addresses confidential. Business owners have submitted about 25 applications for medical marijuana facilities there, all of which are still waiting for decisions from the city’s planning commission.
Carol Dick, who oversees development in La Mesa, said the city’s 60 in-home day cares haven’t caused much of an issue, though a few entrepreneurs have used the city’s zoning map to guess the locations of day cares. They then make the owners offers to move or close so they can open up a dispensary nearby.
“A few of these folks have worked with them and accepted the offers and the businesses have disappeared,” Dick said. “Then we’ll get a document from these day cares that they’re no longer in business — that’s happened a few times already.”
Gina Austin, an attorney who represents clients trying to open dispensaries in the San Diego region, said La Mesa has a better system, but Lemon Grove is making things pretty difficult.
“Their map is a big, vague blob, so it’s too hard to make sense of,” Austin said.
She said Lemon Grove city officials have also failed to take barriers, like walls and hills, into account, even though the voter-approved measure requires that they do. She said she has clients whose proposed locations in Lemon Grove have clear barriers blocking access and visibility to nearby in-home day cares and churches.
At the August City Council meeting, she’ll be asking council members to redo the zoning map to include barriers.
“That’s what we’re asking and we’ve been asking for from day one,” she said.
Lemon Grove City Councilman Jerry Jones said the size and geography of the city is partly to blame for the difficulty finding appropriate places to locate marijuana dispensaries.
“Everything in our business district is close to a residential area, and it’s really long and narrow so there’s not a lot of depth,” he said. “So that 1,000 square feet becomes problematic.”
But he said he recognized that at least a few of the denied applications, especially one proposed for a building at the edge of town near a strip club, need to be re-examined.
“When that appeal comes before us, I’ll take a closer look at it,” he said. “I really need to work with staff on how they’re drawing lines and we’ll figure this stuff out.”
Austin said she’s been getting an influx of calls asking her to help clients find suitable locations for marijuana businesses. If Lemon Grove takes too much longer to straighten things out, it’ll miss a potential economic boom, she said.
—Kinsee Morlan is the Engagement Editor at Voice of San Diego and author of the Culture Report. Contact her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.