Out with the old medical-cannabis dispensaries ordinance—and in with the new!

Chico City Council repeals existing ordinance, calls for new zoning-based law

It looks like Chico is going to have a medical-cannabis dispensaries ordinance after all—and sooner rather than later.

At their regular meeting Tuesday (Sept. 6), Chico City Council members completed the process begun Aug. 16 of repealing a recently passed ordinance that would have allowed two collective growing sites with dispensaries of up to 10,000 square feet in size. The ordinance also set up a complex vetting system whereby the council would decide which companies would get the permits.

The council was motivated to repeal the ordinance by U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner, who threatened to prosecute them and even certain city employees if they implemented the ordinance. The U.S. government does not recognize California’s medical-cannabis laws.

As soon as the council voted again to repeal the ordinance, members proceeded to express a desire to write a new ordinance, this time one that was based strictly on land-use and zoning. Unlike the first ordinance, it would give the council no discretionary—that is, permitting—role in the process and thus presumably make council members less of a federal target.

Mayor Ann Schwab broached the idea, and Councilman Andy Holcombe quickly endorsed it. “That’s been my position all along,” he said.

Holcombe noted that the medical-cannabis cultivation the city’s current ordinance allows at private residences is also against federal law, and so would be any dispensaries allowed by a land-use-based ordinance, “but we have an obligation to the public” to help provide safe access, he said.

Councilman Scott Gruendl wanted people to know the council was moving forward on a new ordinance, lest someone mount a referendum to overturn the repeal just finalized. If such a referendum were successful, he pointed out, that flawed ordinance would become law.

City Attorney Lori Barker told the council that her office was already working on a new zoning-based ordinance and would have it ready in the near future.

Other council news: Tuesday’s meeting was shorter than expected because two big items, a hearing on a controversial low-income-housing project on East Avenue and a hearing to amend the Chico Municipal Code to incorporate a number of (sometimes controversial) zoning changes contained in the city’s new general plan, both ran into glitches and had to be postponed to the Sept. 20 meeting.

That meant there was plenty of time for the council to argue over one of Schwab’s favorite projects, a proposed Diversity Action Plan for the city. She and Assistant City Manager John Rucker have been working with an ad-hoc DAP Committee for more than a year to evaluate ways to make Chico more inclusive of and welcoming to members of minority groups.

The plan ranks a list of 46 proposed actions into three tiers, beginning with the easiest and cheapest to implement on Tier 1 to the most difficult and expensive on Tier 3. Tier 1 would be implemented in the next year or two, Tier 2 in the next two to five years, and Tier 3 after five years. Overall, the plan would cost very little, Schwab said.

The actions range from providing an annual report about the diversity of the city work force to the council (Tier 1) and developing a plan for bilingual staff (Tier 2) to creating a cultural festival/education week (Tier 3). They are rated for cost from 1 to 3, with 3 being the highest. No dollar figures are provided, however, and that concerned Councilmen Mark Sorensen and Bob Evans.

Evans said he’d gotten a copy of the plan only on Thursday (Sept. 1) and hadn’t had time to study it or talk about it with city staff and asked council to hold off on a vote until the next meeting. Councilman Jim Walker said he was ready to vote but out of respect for Evans supported a continuance, as did Sorensen.

Schwab said she was “very disappointed” that the council didn’t see the value of the plan. “Perhaps I’m too close to it,” she said. “I’ve been living this document for the past year.”

Gruendl seemed to feel her pain. His voice rising, he chided his fellow council members, saying they would be “overstepping their bounds” by talking with city staff and were ignoring the cost rankings in the plan.

“Thanks for the lecture, Scott,” Sorensen replied bluntly. Angrily, he said the cost rankings were too vague and that he wanted to know actual costs.

Gruendl offered an apology of sorts: “I put the time in [to vet the plan],” he said, “but I have to stop [pushing for adoption] because others didn’t [put the time in]. But I’m grateful for the feedback.”

The council will again consider the plan at its Sept. 20 meeting.