SAN DIEGO — Local controversy over marijuana dispensaries opening near churches took a new turn recently, when a man proposing a dispensary in Rancho Bernardo built a large fence on the property to create a longer walking distance between the business and the church — hoping to allow the dispensary under city rules.
Dispensaries can’t open within 1,000 feet of churches, parks, schools and other “sensitive uses” under city rules. But the 1,000 feet is measured by “path of travel” instead of a straight line, so the fence could make a key difference.
City leaders shifted from straight-line measurements to path-of-travel in 2016 in cases where a freeway or some other barrier impeded direct physical access to the proposed dispensary.
Because it’s not clear whether the fence qualifies as such a barrier under the city’s arguably vague revised standard, city officials are proposing some additional revisions for greater clarity.
Marijuana industry leaders support the proposed revisions, but leaders of the church in Rancho Bernardo — Hope United Methodist — and other residents say the changes would prioritize marijuana profits over public safety.
The revisions would shift the measuring standard from “path of travel” to “legal pedestrian path of travel,” potentially allowing a dispensary to open across the street from a sensitive use.
That’s because a pedestrian would be required to walk from a dispensary to the nearest intersection to legally cross the street, and then walk the same distance on the other side of the street to a sensitive use.
Hope United Methodist officials strongly object to such a change, which they believe would allow the proposed Rancho Bernardo dispensary to qualify under city regulations.
“Public safety shouldn’t be compromised for any reason, and especially not for economic gain,” Jennifer Nino, an attorney on Hope United’s board, told the planning commission last month.
Church officials also say that allowing the fence to count as a barrier would violate the spirit of San Diego’s regulations, because it was erected specifically with those rules in mind.
There are no dispensaries in Rancho Bernardo or anywhere else in San Diego’s Council District 5, which also includes Rancho Penasquitos and Scripps Ranch. Each of the city’s eight other council districts has at least one dispensary.
But shortly after the former site of an El Torito restaurant in Rancho Bernardo was sold last year, the new property owner erected a fence to block a private sidewalk that connects the property to nearby businesses and the church.
The fence, which is 6 feet tall and about 65 feet long, increased the path of travel from the proposed dispensary to the church from about 985 feet to about 1,040 feet.
Building such a fence is not illegal and doesn’t violate the spirit of the city’s rules, said Phil Rath, a marijuana industry leader who is representing Willie Senn, the man proposing the Rancho Bernardo dispensary.
“The wall is impeding the sensitive-use traffic the city’s rules are trying to prevent,” Rath said by phone.
Rath also said the outcry in Rancho Bernardo is unwarranted, contending the risks of operating near a dispensary have been exaggerated and that there has been too much focus on the 1,000-foot standard.
“There is not a magical difference when it comes to 1,000 feet versus 1,020 feet,” he said. “It’s just a standard we use.”
Hope United officials say, however, that many dispensary customers will exit the site through a driveway right next to the church. In addition, they say customers might smoke the marijuana they’ve just bought in a parking lot at the site.
When asked about the public outcry, Rath said he thinks there are many marijuana dispensary supporters who haven’t expressed their opinions on the proposal.
The fence erected in Rancho Bernardo comes after several other dispensaries have been approved despite close proximity to churches.
In some cases, the approvals came because of the rule enacted in 2016 that allowed shorter distances than 1,000 feet if there was a physical barrier like a freeway or flood control channel.
In other cases, approvals were granted because the marijuana businesses discovered the church did not have proper building permits, was illegally located in a flood plain or was violating some other city rule.