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Should a marijuana shop be allowed near kids' dance studio? Grover Beach lawsuit says no

This is the view looking across the parking lot from Coastal Dance and Music Academy to Natural Healing Center, a medicinal and recreational cannabis retail shop on Huston Street in Grover Beach.
This is the view looking across the parking lot from Coastal Dance and Music Academy to Natural Healing Center, a medicinal and recreational cannabis retail shop on Huston Street in Grover Beach. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

The owners of Coastal Dance and Music Academy sued the city of Grover Beach this week for allowing a marijuana shop to open 150 feet away from the dance studio's front door, saying the dispensary will severely impact the youth-centered business, according to a lawsuit filed in San Luis Obispo County Superior Court.

The dance studio company is asking a judge to pull the permits issued to Natural Healing Center because, the lawsuit says, the city violated a state law that says cannabis businesses must be 600 feet from schools and youth centers.

Grover Beach disagrees, as does the owner of the marijuana facility.

Kathy Schultz, an owner of the dance studio, told the City Council in January that her business falls under the category of youth center, and asked the city not to issue permits until the backers of the cannabis shop agreed to pay relocation costs for the academy.

"If you allow a dispensary that close in proximity to a youth-centered business, which will be sharing the same parking lot, a child will be injured or worse," Schultz said at a public meeting in January, adding she is concerned about increased traffic from delivery trucks and impaired drivers.

"Any business that requires drastic security measures — such as installing a 6-foot iron fence with gates across the front of the property, putting iron bars across all of the windows, installing bollards in front of the access points to prevent ramming of doors, and hiring around-the-clock armed security guards — is clearly a dangerous business and is incompatible with close proximity to a youth center," Schultz said.

David Separzadeh, the principal owner of Natural Healing Center, disputed that characterization.

"That connotation is actually false," Separzadeh told The Tribune. He pointed to studies that show neighborhoods with medical cannabis dispensaries don't see an increase in crime and "because of the heightened security, it actually does the opposite and makes the immediate area safer."

As for parking lot safety, the cannabis facility is expected to bring fewer cars to the lot than previous business uses there and Councilwoman Mariam Shah said during the January meeting that "that parking lot has never been a safe situation. The exit where children come out goes right into overcrowded traffic."

Shah said she did consider the impact of cannabis businesses on children, including children who have to walk to school in gutters because "there are no consistent sidewalks in Grover Beach."

"Those are the kids I'm thinking of. I'm thinking of the tax money," Shah said.

The city issued permits to Natural Healing Center, which is scheduled to open in the next few months, to manufacture, cultivate and sell medical marijuana.

"The city has been overly responsible in designing a cannabis zone in the industrial zone of Grover Beach," Separzadeh said. "We've helped other businesses (in the neighborhood) move to beautiful locations.

"We're eager to continue with our plans to create jobs and tax revenue to the community," he said.

Grover Marijuana009
Natural Healing Center, a cannabis facility that opened in Grover Beach, is the first retailer in the county to sell recreational marijuana. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

The lawsuit filed in San Luis Obispo County Superior Court says that one of the ways the Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act mitigates potential negative impacts of the cannabis industry, "is by requiring separation between commercial cannabis operations and sensitive uses, such as schools and other facilities that cater to minors."

The act requires that facilities licensed for cannabis activity, "shall not be located within a 600-foot radius of a school ... day care center, or youth center." Youth centers are broadly defined to include, "any public or private facility that is primarily used to host recreational or social activities for minors."

While the question of what constitutes a youth center has been raised as other cities and counties work to legally locate new businesses, Grover Beach City Attorney David Hale told The Tribune it's irrelevant in this case.

State law does require a setback of 600 feet from schools and youth centers, "unless the local agency defines a different setback," Hale said. "And we did in our ordinance."

The local ordinance only requires cannabis facilities be set back 600 feet from schools.

The lawsuit, filed by Costa Mesa-based law firm Rutan & Tucker LLP, agrees that the local ordinance "does not separately address youth centers." It also says that city code requires that before a permit is issued, findings must be made that a proposed development "will not constitute a hazard to the public interest, health, safety or welfare."

A case management conference is scheduled May 31.

Monica Vaughan: 805-781-7930; @monicalvaughan
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