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’We’re definitely going to challenge this.’ Fresno denies cannabis shops. What happens now?

inside dispensary

Shock was what Lauren Fontein was left with, following a Fresno City Council hearing on Wednesday that decided the immediate future of five cannabis dispensaries in town.

Fontein’s business, a dispensary/art galley in the Tower District called the Artist Tree, was one of four cannabis licenses denied on appeal by the council during the hours-long meeting.

Also denied were: Haven, at 335 W. Olive Ave.; Public Cannabis, at 1220 E. Olive Ave.; and Cookies, at 7315 N. Blackstone Ave.

A Lemonnade-branded store set to open inside the old Bank of America branch in the Tower was the only cannabis dispensary to overcome the appeal process.

“All of this,” Fontein said, “was done very oddly.”

Fresno's License Appeal Voting Protocol

For one, Fontein believed the council would simply be voting yes or no on the appeal, as is typical in these cases. Instead, applicants were told at the start of the meeting that council members would vote to approve or deny the license, which had to be done with a motion and second.

If no motion was made, that would be considered a no vote and the license revoked.

No motion was made for Artist Tree.

This essentially ended the year-plus long process for the business, with “no reason as to why the project should not be allowed to move forward,” Fontein said.

In a message to The Bee on Thursday, District 1 Councilmember Esmerelda Soria, said the Lemonnade’s license at the Bank of America building was “a superior location for this kind of business and had broader support from the community.”

“All those points were clearly documented in the public record hat the council considered.”

The Artist Tree ranked third (just behind the Lemonnade and Cookies applications) on the city’s scoring rubric, which was used to score each of the 74 applicants that applied for retail businesses licenses last December. Thirty-five were selected as finalists.

According to the city, Soria filed the appeal “to allow for public participation in the awarding process,” which Fontein doesn’t believe is real grounds for an appeal.

Fontein questioned what was going on behind the scenes prior to the vote.

“It just seems very fishy,” she said.

Garry Bredefeld from District 7, who chose to not appeal any of three applications in his own district, expressed his sympathy and support for the Artist Tree during the meeting, though he wouldn’t go as far as to make a motion to approve their license.

He did say he thought the company was treated poorly during the meeting and said he saw similar treatment during hearings on the relocation of Club One Casino earlier this summer.

Is a Lawsuit Coming?

The denied applicants can reapply for licenses at the end of the year, but the decisions of the council on Wednesday constitute a final ruling, according to the city. There is no set no set codified process for the applicants to challenge the ruling, Fontein said.

She does believe there are legal remedies for the company, but wasn’t ready to discuss what those might be on Wednesday.

“There were deficiencies in the way the appeal was handled,” she said. “We’re definitely going to challenge this.”

During the meeting, the council members themselves seemed unsure about the entire process.

Bredefeld heavily criticized the way the appeals were being handled, at one point implying the council was strong-arming applicants into working with unions. Bredefeld also questioned the legality of the city’s cannabis ordinance and said he thought it was worthwhile to scrap the entire process and start from scratch.

Fresno continues to be the largest city in the state to not have recreational, brick-and-mortar pot shops, despite the fact that cannabis has been legal for medical purposes in the state since the passage or Prop. 215 in 1996 and for recreational purposes since Prop. 64 passed in 2016.

This city didn’t even begin to seriously look at legalized marijuana until 2018 and even then considered medical uses only and was met with opposition.

The city’s current application process began in earnest last year.

Council president Miguel Arias said he’d rather not have had a five-hour meeting for the appeal process, but that it was necessary because councilmembers hadn’t been allowed to see applications or talk to the applicants before licenses were awarded.

“We’re here because this is the process we set up,” he said.

He had a message for Mayor Jerry Dyer’s administrative team, which was tasked with approving the licenses.

“They should not be bringing forward proposals that don’t meet the values of this council,” Arias said.

“Location matters. Resident support matters. Proximity to schools, parks and community centers matter.”

He urged City Manager Thomas Esqueda to remember the council’s values — protecting residential neighborhoods, parks, schools and community centers — when scoring the next round of applications, rather than prioritizing business interests that build revenue for the city.

Will Licenses be Re-Awarded?

The city manager can now choose to re-award the licenses that were denied.

Those will be chosen from the existing applicants and will have to go through the same appeals process, which means they too could end up in front of the council.

And indeed Soria said she would appeal if and when the city manager chooses to re-award the license, “because it provides a more robust and transparent public process.”

That won’t happen before Dec. 5, the city manager said. That’s the date city hopes to vote on new city council boundaries. Those boundaries would go into effect at the start of the year and the redrawn lines could affect which districts applicants are in.

The Artist Tree Will Open in Fresno

At the same time, the Artist Tree continues to move forward on a location off of North Palm Avenue in District 2. That application was also awarded one of the city’s 21 preliminary licenses in September. It was not appealed. On Tuesday, the company had an on site meeting with Fresno police and is hoping to get before the planning commission in November. If the progress remains steady, the location could be open in mid-Spring, Fontein said.

 

 

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