The City of San Diego’s 1,000-foot distance rule between cannabis outlets and sensitive uses — such as schools, parks, libraries and religious facilities — has been used by Rancho Bernardo residents to block two proposed outlets in the community’s business district.
Some residents have said during community meetings they do not necessarily oppose outlets opening in Rancho Bernardo, but feel they are better suited to places such as the Rancho Bernardo Business Park instead of areas where children are frequently present.
A new proposal for the city to loosen that rule is being seen as a threat to residents’ ability to have a say where such outlets can operate in the future, according to the discussion at the Rancho Bernardo Planning Board’s Dec. 16 virtual meeting.
The new proposal continues to include schools, child care centers and minor-oriented facilities like a Boys & Girls Club on the list of sensitive uses, but lowers the 1,000-foot restriction to 600 feet for religious facilities, parks, libraries and playgrounds. How distances are measured could also change.
At the conclusion of the discussion, the board voted unanimously to send a letter to city officials “strongly” opposing any change in the distance rules.
San Diego City Councilmember Stephen Whitburn of District 3, which includes Downtown, North Park and Old Town, is leading an effort to increase the number of cannabis outlets in the city by almost 40 percent and bring them into neighborhoods, such as Rancho Bernardo, which have none.
Dispensary hours could also be expanded from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily to 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., under the proposal.
Resident Becky Rapp, who has spoken against proposals for outlets in Rancho Bernardo at past board meetings, said the change would make it easy for the city to “rubber stamp” applications the community would oppose.
“He is trying to get a workaround,” Rapp said about Whitburn.
“I support (outlets) with sensible use regulations,” said resident Rob Brienza, whose home is within 100 feet of the old El Torito restaurant where an outlet has been proposed. He has opposed the location for several reasons, including proximity to his home.
“(Whitburn) is trying to cater to the marijuana businesses,” Brienza said.
Whitburn says the change would align the city’s rules with state law, though critics say state law gives cities discretion to implement tighter regulations based on community priorities.
Earlier this month the proposal was presented to the city’s Planning Commission and the council’s Land Use Committee. Both deferred decisions until February so residents and community leaders can weigh in on the dispensary location rules established in 2014. They limit the total to 36 dispensaries, with a maximum of four per council district.
Poway resident Kathleen Lippitt, a public health practitioner and public policy advocate with the Coastal Communities Drug Free Coalition, has frequently spoken against outlets.
“It’s important to remember the current marijuana ordinance became code in the first place after 18 months of weekly city meetings with a city-appointed task force, residents and marijuana business (representatives),” Lippitt told the RB Planning Board. “The current sensitive use (rules) is the only protection communities and residents still enjoy. … If they can’t reach 36 outlets (citywide) so be it.”
While helping support the cannabis industry is a state priority, the priority of cities should be their residents, Lippitt said.
As of Dec. 17, a list on the city’s website shows that 27 cannabis outlets have been approved. The four-limit max has been reached in City Council Districts 1, 2, 6, 7, 8 and 9. Whitburn’s District 3 has two, District 4 has one and another application pending and District 5 (which includes Rancho Bernardo) has none.
There are two applications listed for District 5 — one with no name listed at 16375 Bernardo Center Drive (the former El Torito) in Rancho Bernardo and one for March & Ash at 13510 Sabre Springs Parkway. (It is in Sabre Springs, but its community is incorrectly identified as Rancho Peñasquitos on the list).
In recent years two outlets — Urbn Leaf and March & Ash — were proposed for Rancho Bernardo.
In 2019, Urbn Leaf applied to open in the old El Torito restaurant that has been vacant for years. Its application then — identified with the same number as the current application on file for that location — was strongly opposed due to its proximity to homes, youth-oriented businesses in the shopping center where the building is located, Hope United Methodist Church and the church’s preschool. All are within the 1,000-foot limit.
Earlier this year, March & Ash applied for the former San Diego National Bank vacant building at 16789 Bernardo Center Drive (across from US Bank). But its application was withdrawn after its distance to Webb Park and The Remington Club was measured. (There is also a 1,000-foot limit for residential care facilities, while the limit from residential zones is 100 feet.)
“It’s just gamesmanship, really frustrating,” said RB Planning Board member Hugh Rothman. “I do not wish to lose the protection the city is providing our residents. We do not want to change the city ordinance to be more in line with the state.”
“The city is backtracking and no longer protecting its citizens,” said board member Ben Wier.
“The city should not be looking for workarounds,” said board member Joni Edelman. “It looks like it is targeting communities with no facilities or few who want to be here.”
Rapp reminded the board that state rules have tightened for cannabis outlet billboards so they are not as easily seen by children, yet this change — if adopted — would put the outlets near schools and homes.
“Basically it is the city saying ‘We don’t care about (residents) … we want the (marijuana) industry to grow,’” Rapp said.
Residents said that lowering the distance rule would make additional locations potentially eligible. For example, someone mentioned the vacant former Souplantation building that is across the parking lot from the Rancho Bernardo Library.
In other board business:
• It voted 5-4 to not recommend the proposed AT&T cell tower on the RB Swim & Tennis Club property at the proposed location.
The board reportedly received 59 messages from community members in opposition to the tower (with 21 of those specifically mentioning location as the reason) and 28 messages in support (this included five from Swim & Tennis board members).
As was pointed out during the meeting, City of San Diego officials will have the final say since the RB Planning Board is an advisory group to the city.
• It voted unanimously to send a letter to the city detailing board members’ concerns over proposed changes to how planning boards operate citywide.
• Voted to nullify last month’s appointment of Seven Oaks resident June Smith to the board since she had not met the meeting attendance eligibility requirement. It could not reappoint her this month due to the proximity of the 2022 elections.
• Reminded residents that those interested in seeking election in March who have not attended a full board meeting in the past year have one more opportunity on Jan. 20 to meet the requirement. For details and the declaration of candidacy form go to RBPlanningBoard.com.
The San Diego Union-Tribune reporter David Garrick contributed to this article.