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Published in Economic Development

Former GR cannabis administrator seeks clarity with local zoning

BY Sunday, July 03, 2022 06:20pm

A Q&A with Landon Bartley, interim president of the West Michigan Cannabis Guild and principal and CEO of Proxima Collective

Landon Bartley spent more than 14 years in various planning roles at the city of Grand Rapids, including as its cannabis administrator. He has since launched urban planning consulting firm Proxima Collective, which specializes in cannabis zoning, and currently serves as the interim president of the West Michigan Cannabis Guild, where he helps review local cannabis ordinances and advocates for local candidates and regulations that better serve operators. Bartley spoke with MiBiz about why he left the public sector and how municipalities can create rational cannabis zoning rules.

Why did you transition from public-sector cannabis and planning work to more of an advocacy role in the private sector?

I was (Grand Rapids’) de facto marijuana administrator, at least for the medical program. I had been there for a while and I thought it was time to move on, but I also got to know the people in the industry and applicants who wanted to get into the industry locally but were struggling. I was wondering — from a government perspective and professionally — what is really going on here, and if there was any validity to these concerns (about cannabis) that may or may not be supported in fact. 

There is so much misinformation about cannabis out there, and in some cases it is coming from the government. I felt our ordinance in a way was exacerbating that misinformation: It sets required distances between cannabis land uses and other land uses, which I think was done to have a limit (on cannabis establishments) without setting a cap

Can you elaborate on the flaws you see in Grand Rapids’ and other municipalities’ cannabis ordinances?

The question of whether there is a rational connection between the policy and fact comes up a lot with separation distances. A lot of operators understand the principle behind it and say: ‘I don’t want to sell to kids or do something bad, I just want to sell my product, but why am I being separated from a church or youth center when I’m already being separated from a school?’

The youth center made a lot of people mad and made a lot of land uses nonconforming. It was an undefined use, and proximity to a cannabis outlet has no correlation to increased youth use. You also can’t expand a nonconforming use without going to the Board of Zoning Appeals, which is a pretty significant land use change.  

What does the West Michigan Cannabis Guild support when it comes to regulating cannabis businesses?

We really want to just make sure there are still opportunities for people to open, expand and operate their businesses in town without getting shut down or having additional steps that other businesses aren’t subject to, such as going to the Board of Zoning Appeals. 

You can have a relatively strict zoning ordinance, and developers are willing to go a long way as long as they have a predictable zoning atmosphere. They’ll be OK as long as they understand why the rules are there and they aren’t being changed in the middle of the game, and that’s been the problem with cannabis for the last couple of years. 

The overall goal is to say: We’re just another industry that should be regulated like any other industry. Where there are proven, valid health considerations and land use considerations, we should take that into account. But until that point, let’s not give undo regulation where it’s not needed.

Many municipalities have created social equity programs for cannabis operators, yet there is an extreme lack of diversity in the ownership of cannabis businesses across the state. Have you seen any examples of a social equity program that has been effective?

Not really. I think the social equity programs are a good thing, but the problem with them is several-fold. The burden is still on the industry to bring about these social equity changes that were brought about by government actions, and that’s problematic. An effective social equity program would be putting the pressure more on the state licensing, banks, insurance companies and the federal government. 

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