Business

Merced dispensary owners fight over permits. Can’t agree on definition of a ‘school’

A Red Ribbon Week banner celebrating drug free schools hangs above the entrance to the Merced County Office of Education on Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2018. A debate is ongoing about a section of the campus that could terminate a permit to run a dispensary that’s too close.
A Red Ribbon Week banner celebrating drug free schools hangs above the entrance to the Merced County Office of Education on Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2018. A debate is ongoing about a section of the campus that could terminate a permit to run a dispensary that’s too close. tmiller@mercedsunstar.com

Two applicants for a marijuana dispensary in Merced have been fighting for months over whether one is too close to a school. Also, they can’t agree on the definition of a school.

Merced awarded four applicants with dispensary permits last month based on a merit-based score from a small committee of city employees.

The people behind the applicant that finished fifth, Medallion Wellness, have appealed the decision on fourth-place finisher Harvest of Merced, noting it is about 981 feet from a section of the Wolfe Education Center and saying it does not meet the 1,000 feet of required distance from a school.

The applicants are fighting over about 20 feet and millions in profits.

The debate comes down to whether the education center counts as a school, and how the city measures what they call the “sensitive use” radius that protects spaces like a school.

Merced measures its radius from parcel to parcel and does not take into account the distances between actual buildings, according to staffers.

The Merced County Office of Education’s main office and classrooms that serve children under 18 are just outside the 1,000-foot radius from fourth-place finisher Harvest. But the Wolfe Education Center has two rooms that are technically on a separate parcel, which is 981 feet from the dispensary.

One room holds developmentally-delayed adults, who are older than 18 but developmentally much younger, according to school officials. The room has had students under 18 in past years, according to MCOE spokesperson Nathan Quevedo.

Those final two buildings are part of a row of bungalows that are almost indecipherable from the other 11 bungalows. A preschool of about 47 children is also on the campus on the farther away parcel.

The rooms are attached to the larger campus, making them part of the school, according to Medallion’s attorney Zach Drivon.

“Simply based on the fact that the smaller parcel is part of that largest school site — that should disqualify the Harvest location,” he said.

Officials with the Office of Education were hesitant to give an opinion on whether the education center is a school. The buildings are used for instructing students, according to Steve Tietjen, the Merced County superintendent of schools.

“The critical factor to me is that the portion of our property that is in the 1,000-foot radius to the proposed dispensary serves a special education transition classroom and our foster youth services classroom, which does serve minors,” he said.

Tietjen said one of the classrooms has a code and receives funding from the state like any kindergarten to 12th-grade classroom.

“The Wolfe Center has previously served high school students and could again in the future,” he said.

For the people who work for Harvest, it’s a fairness issue. They were told months ago by city staff that their location was outside the radius. If it wasn’t, they would have picked another location, according to applicant Ben Kimbro.

He called Medallion’s efforts a “sour grapes ambush” at a recent hearing.

“We worked off of what was denied and included in a buffer zone,” he said. “Very obviously (we) wouldn’t have looked for somewhere that would have caused this sort of problem.”

The Harvest team was careful with its use of the words in question, arguing that the bungalows that hold teachers and students are home to “programs” and not “a school.”

The City Council last week sent the issue back to the city’s Planning Commission for further investigation. Representatives for each dispensary have appeared before the council and the commission each at least twice since August.

Councilmember Jill McLeod said the commission needed to answer a number of questions, noting the education center has qualities most people would attribute to a school.

“When we say ‘school’ we are using that as a cultural shorthand for a place where we educate individuals on a regular basis,” she said.

The issue’s next hearing before the Planning Commission has yet to be determined.

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