April 19 2017 03:33 PM

Strict proposed ordinance uses zoning to sharply reduce dispensaries

Wood (Left) and Hussain (Right)

The medical marijuana ordinance being considered in City Hall would force all but eight of Lansing’s 62 dispensaries to shut down or move.

And it’s unclear how many would even be able to operate elsewhere because of restrictions on how close they can be to each other.

Those conclusions are based on taking a map provided by the City Council of proposed restricted and non-restricted areas and placing on it the existing dispensaries that City Pulse was able to determine are operating in Lansing. It is information that the drafters of the ordinance had not done for themselves.

Council members said they have turned to a more restrictive use of zoning after hearing from neighborhoods and constituents that they wanted the facilities to be far removed from where they live and play. That, experts in land use, say is the core conundrum involved in planning and land use development.

There is one thing all the players involved in the medical marijuana regulation saga in Lansing say they agree on: they want patients to have access to safe, affordable medications. Beyond that, a morass of the frustrating process of balancing the needs of neighbors with the marijuana businesses and working within a still evolving state regulatory framework.

“It needs to be made relative to the values of the community,” said Mark Wyckoff, the director of the Planning and Zoning Center at MSU. That’s part of the Land Policy Institute, where he is the interim director. “That means all the stakeholders have be at the table. There has to be a transparent, open process in which everyone’s views can be heard.”

The City Council Committee on Public Safety, where the ordinance is being developed, has held over 50 meetings and participated in hundreds of hours of public debate. They’ve reviewed at least eight draft ordinances in the last year alone.

On Tuesday the committee, which has been handling the draft ordinances since the early days of the conversation in 2010, began the line by line review of 30-page “Draft 6b” version of a local law.

The ordinance regulates the industry from two perspectives. First it uses zoning to restrict the locations of facilities, and second it uses its police powers to create strict licensing rules. The battle rests on the use of zoning.

Zoning is a process by which city planners create specific areas with a city designated for certain uses. For instance, if you’re reading this in a coffee shop, that is designated a business zone. If you’re reading this at home in your apartment, there’s a designation for multi-unit residential zoning, and there’s one for single family dwellings as well. Each designation in the city carries with it specific requirements about what can happen in that area.

In the latest draft of the ordinance, dispensaries have a little bit more leeway in which areas they can locate. They can be located in commercial districts as well as the zoned areas for the business types. The other licensed facilities, labs, transporters, growing operations and processing centers, could only be located industrial, light industrial and wholesale districts.

A 2014 study of similar zoning restrictions for marijuana facilities in Denver, conducted by Colorado University-Denver Professor Jeremy Németh, found the restrictions pushed the businesses into lower income, minority communities and neighborhoods.

With some small exceptions, the draft ordinance calls for pushing dispensaries into the northwest and southern edges of the city. Those two areas, according to census data City-Data.com, have a generally lower annual average income than other areas of the city.

Nemeth, in a phone interview Tuesday, said with buffer restrictions and zoning, the “particularly insidious” result was to deepen the disparity between wealthier areas of the communities and lower income areas.

“It exacerbates it,” he said. “These create this situation with more prohibitive restrictions of the ‘bad stuff’ because ‘we’ [the wealthier parts of the community] have so much good stuff that it can’t be near.”

The result of the zoning restrictions, an analysis by City Pulse found, is that only eight of the 62 dispensaries identified as operating in Lansing could remain in their current locations. The rest would have to relocate, or close.

City officials say there are 618 properties that fit within the various zones available for the marijuana trade. But they concede that not all of those properties will be available. Some are rented. Some are not appropriate for retail. And since dispensaries cannot be within 500 feet of each, many will be ruled out.

Robin Schneider, legislative liaison for the National Patient Rights Association, challenges any assumption that dispensaries will find it easy to relocate.

She said businesses are “frantically” searching in the areas identified in the draft legislation for property, but aren’t finding anything.

“It’s not available,” she said.

Moving could be expensive. A survey commissioned by City Pulse and conducted by Michigan State University found that out of 30 responding dispensaries, 29 had done improvements on their location. Ten spent between $5,000 and $50,000 on upgrades and improvements to the property. Three claimed to have invested between $85,000 and $120,000 on improvements, while the remainder said they had spent between $40 and $3,500.

Reviewing the map, it appears the city has landed on one side of an age-old debate in land use circles: concentrate or disperse. The map appears to show a concentration approach.

Councilwoman At-Large Carol Wood said the proposed concentration in the northwest and south was unintentional. It was, she said, the result of years of city leaders tinkering with zoning and trying to bring order to the chaos of city planning. As a result, the lump sum of available properly zoned properties fell with that area.

The ordinance does more than just restrict the businesses to specific zoning areas. It further restricts their locations by preventing them from being 1,000 feet from schools and child care facilities and 500 feet from parks, substance abuse treatment facilities and other medical marijuana facilities.

But those restrictions could be somewhat flexible, Wood said. Some properties could qualify for possible variances from the restrictions.

"If you were, say, 490 feet from a park, you could put in for a variance," she said in hypothetical terms. "There is a potential that could be granted."

Variances are granted by the Zoning Board of Appeals, and appeals of that body’s decision go directly to circuit court, circumventing city government altogether.

Wood said there had been discussion and it was not off the table, to "cap the number of dispensaries, and limit the number in each ward."

That could overcome Schneider’s opposition to the zoning exclusions, she said. Doing so would require a “reasonable” number of facilities, which she said was 20 to 30, and a focus on what those businesses are doing to improve the community and the business.

Asked to comment on that possible resolution, Third Ward Councilman Adam Hussain, who chairs of the Committee on Public Safety, would say only that he “promised a fair discussion on this.”

He said he believed the ordinance “achieved those objectives” he heard outlined by community members.

Schneider, legislative liaison for the National Patient Rights Association, said she opposes the use of zoning as a regulation tool, calling it “shortsighted” and “somewhat discriminatory.”

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