Cannabis Retailer Loses Appeal to Open Shop Near Major Pasadena Intersection

SweetFlower Pasadena is one of two commercial cannabis retailer finalists judged to have submitted “incomplete” Conditional Use Permit applications

Published : Thursday, August 8, 2019 | 4:38 AM

Clockwise, from top left: Commercial cannabis business representatives, attorneys and community members in the audience in City Council Chambers on Wednesday, August 7, 2019; Commissioner Felicia Williams; Greg Sanders, attorney for SweetFlower LLC; and David Reyes, Director of Pasadena's Planning and Community Development Department. Photos by Eddie Rivera.

[Updated] At least one of the City’s six cannabis retail finalists is discovering that acquiring a license to sell marijuana in Pasadena was only the first difficult step to actually opening a retail operation. Getting City approval for a store isn’t easy, either.

On Wednesday, Pasadena’s Board of Zoning Appeals shut down an appeal by SweetFlower Pasadena LLC’s attempt to open a store near the intersection of Lake Avenue and Colorado Boulevard, and thereby possibly ended SweetFlower’s opportunity to do business in Pasadena at all.

The Board voted 4-1 to uphold a decision to reject SweetFlower’s Conditional Use Permit (CUP) application because the company submitted an incomplete application. According to Planning and Community Development Director David Reyes, SweetFlower failed to include a mapping report “prepared by a licensed surveyor,” as required.

Commissioners Donald Nanney, Ali Barar, Steven Olivas, and Tim Wendler voted in support of the decision. Committee Chair Felicia William voted against it.

SweetFlower had hoped to open a retail shop at 827 East Colorado Boulevard, in Council District Three. It originally submitted an application with a map not prepared by a licensed surveyor. Informed by the Planning Department that their application was incomplete, they then submitted an application with a map “reviewed by” a licensed surveyor. Finally they submitted a third map, but was told by the Planning Department that their application would be rejected.

The decision is the first of what could likely be a number of such appeals, following the nearly two-year journey towards retail cannabis sales in Pasadena.

Following a successful 2017 City vote to allow retail cannabis sales, and a series of community meetings last fall, 122 applications for cannabis retailers were submitted to the City before the January 30, 2019 deadline. Only six permits—one per council district—would be awarded.

The permittee selection process consisted of a “screening application” and review and scoring of the applications by a third-party selection committee utilizing review criteria established by the City.

The process would, according to a Planning Department staff report, ensure that candidates be technically experienced, well capitalized to be able to deliver on commitments after a demanding land use planning process and costly site acquisition and improvements; able to design a dispensary that blends with the neighborhood and meets Pasadena’s strict security and safety expectations; able to hire and train sufficient staff to operate in a professional manner, and most importantly, according to the report, “committed to a community benefits plan that provides tangible benefits and contributions to the community.”

All applications were scored and ranked by a designated selection committee of staff at Hinderliter, de Llamas & Associates Companies (Hdl). The top six retail applicants were then interviewed by members of City staff to confirm the information on their applications. The interviews were monitored by the City’s Internal Audit group.

The six top-scoring applicants, announced in June, were Integral Associates Dena, LLC, Tony Fong, The Atrium Group, LLC; Harvest of Pasadena, LLC; MME Pasadena Retail, LLC; and SweetFlower Pasadena, LLC The applicants were then offered the opportunity to submit a Conditional Use Permit Cannabis Retail application.

SweetFlower was one of five to submit a CUP application. Applications from finalists Harvest, Tony Fong, and Integral were judged “complete.” The application from SweetFlower was ruled “incomplete,” the application from The Atrium Group was ruled “complete,”  however, the City determined that Harvest of Pasadena’s application, which was submitted before The Atrium Groups, was also “complete”, thereby preventing The Atrium Group’s from moving forward.  MME Pasadena has not yet submitted a CUP application.

The five remaining applicants, however, could likely be vying for less than the allowed six locations, given the dearth of qualifying locations in the City.

Following a presentation of the case by Planning Department Management Analyst Guille Nunez, Greg Sanders, attorney for SweetFlower LLC, first attempted to argue that Planning Department Director Reyes had “no authority” to make the determination. Sanders insisted that only City Manager Steve Mermell could make such a decision.

Reyes responded that the City’s municipal cannabis code gives the Planning Director the specific authority to make such decisions.

At times the hearing took on the dynamics of a schoolyard, as Sanders argued over the definition of “library” and maps “prepared by” as compared to maps “reviewed by” licensed surveyors. Sanders also claimed that SweetFlower made a “good faith” effort in their application, but that they were held to “ a completely different standard” than other applicants.

Meanwhile, other retail finalists argued in support of the decision not to allow SweetFlower to open. Christopher Sutton of Atrium, told the Board, “Every decision has a domino effect” on other applicants.

The Atrium Group also submitted applications for locations within Council District Three but their application will not be processed due to the City’s restriction of one retail dispensary per Council District, and rules regarding distance between retail outlets.

Regulations require that dispensaries be located away from sensitive uses such as schools, and no closer than 1,000 feet from another dispensary, nor closer than 600 feet from a residentially zoned area, according to the staff report.

During the board discussion just before the vote, Williams said she could not tell the difference in the various maps submitted by the applicants, and thus was reluctant to vote against SweetFlower.

After breaking down the details of the case and the municipal code, Reyes told the Board, “SweetFlower submitted an incomplete application, and that’s the bottom line.”

The remaining complete and code-compliant CUPs for Cannabis Retail applications will be processed and brought forth to the Planning Commission within the next few months, said the staff report.

The staff report also noted that, “Given the stakes, it is anticipated that the results of the Planning Commission’s actions will likely be appealed to the City Council.”

Successful CUP applicants will then be able to continue through the cannabis process, moving on to secure additional required permits or approvals, including securing a state required license, prior to opening for business.

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