Published in Economic Development
Entrepreneur Tami VandenBerg was involved with plans to convert a former electronics store on South Division Avenue in Grand Rapids into a medical marijuana dispensary. The Planning Commission denied the special land use request for the facility after religious groups spoke out against it. Entrepreneur Tami VandenBerg was involved with plans to convert a former electronics store on South Division Avenue in Grand Rapids into a medical marijuana dispensary. The Planning Commission denied the special land use request for the facility after religious groups spoke out against it. MIBIZ PHOTO: ANDY BALASKOVITZ

‘No one is happy’: GR entrepreneur denied medical marijuana dispensary as city officials grapple with regulations

BY Sunday, May 10, 2020 06:41pm

GRAND RAPIDS — Objections from religious institutions have halted another proposed medical marijuana dispensary in Grand Rapids, underscoring what critics say is a flawed and unclear regulatory system. 

On April 24, the city’s Planning Commission — an eight-member appointed body that considers waivers if medical marijuana businesses are located near sensitive uses like parks, churches and substance abuse treatment centers — rejected requests to open a dispensary on South Division Avenue. It was the commission’s third denial this year.

Nearby religious officials objected to the business on moral grounds, saying it would be a detriment to the neighborhood’s character and the youth.

Applicant Tami VandenBerg, an Eastown resident who owns popular bars The Meanwhile and Pyramid Scheme, sought to repurpose a vacant electronics store on the city’s south side with a hiring preference for local residents. Some Planning Commission members said VandenBerg was the ideal type of candidate the city wants operating a cannabis store.

However, the April 24 meeting included objections from the pastors of two nearby churches and a mosque. The Planning Commission initially deadlocked 4-4 on the waiver before ultimately denying it. 

Planning Commission members spoke repeatedly about their frustrations — not with marijuana businesses but with the underlying zoning regulations adopted by the City Commission. They grappled during the meeting over whether a medical marijuana dispensary would have a “detrimental impact” on the religious institutions, weighing the anti-drug messages from religious leaders and the physical geography of where the business is located around a busy thoroughfare. The Planning Commission could have approved the waiver despite the opposition from church leaders.

“It is extremely frustrating to have the existing regulations put us in this position,” said Planning Commission member Stacie Behler.

Planning Commission member Walter Brame added: “I think, frankly, we have been put in an untoward position from the City Commission on this.”

Working as intended?

Since the city started accepting applications last year, the Planning Commission has approved waivers for 25 medical marijuana locations — including grow sites, dispensaries and processors — while denying them in eight cases. Three provisioning centers are in operation: 3Fifteen at 2900 S. Division Ave.; Pharmhouse Wellness at 831 Wealthy St. SW; and Fluresh at 1213 Phillips Ave. SW.

The denials were based on objections from religious organizations, treatment centers or city parks, in several cases from multiple sources.

Grand Rapids Planning Director Kristin Turkelson said despite frustration from Planning Commission members and applicants like VandenBerg, the medical marijuana ordinance is working as intended.

“It is working in that we set out to use the separation distances to protect sensitive uses but also control the number of facilities and proliferation of facilities in the city,” she said, noting that setbacks were specifically used instead of capping the number of facilities in the city. Municipalities including Muskegon Township and Lowell, for example, have capped the number of cannabis businesses allowed. The city of Muskegon established a marijuana overlay district to locate dispensaries.

While Turkelson agrees that VandenBerg may have been an ideal candidate based on objectives set out by the city, that’s not a determining factor.

“If we were solely focused on local ownership, then absolutely Tami’s application would fulfill that,” Turkelson said. “But that’s not the only consideration to look at. The Planning Commission was responsible to the entire ordinance, not just one aspect of a desired goal, which is local ownership.”

‘No one is happy’

While the Planning Commission must follow regulations in the ordinance, the rules give the body authority to decide waivers and, effectively, the fate of a project. Applicants also can appeal a decision to the Board of Zoning Appeals.

Ben Wrigley, partner at Cannalex Law in Grand Rapids, represented a client whose waiver request for a dispensary on South Division also was denied.

“One of the things the Planning Commission has been struggling with are these waivers,” Wrigley said. “What is the purpose for these buffer zones and sensitive areas which are guiding the situation? Are (they) to make the determination that a provisioning center within the 1,000-foot radius of a church is going to have a negative, adverse effect? How do you measure that?”

Wrigley said “for the most part,” cities have not gone to the same lengths as Grand Rapids on separation requirements from as many sensitive uses. 

He added that religious opposition to marijuana facilities is part of a broader coalition in Grand Rapids.

“Not only were the churches speaking in opposition to the proposed new provisioning centers, they were also speaking to the fact that this should not change in the future and that their desires and wishes are as important — if not more important — than some of these businesses,” he said. “That’s a tough coalition to fight, let’s be candid.”

According to data compiled by the city, 17 religious institutions have not objected to cannabis facilities, while five have filed objections.

VandenBerg waited for 13 months for the Planning Commission to consider her company’s  application, which required multiple renegotiations on an option to buy the building at 2249 S. Division Ave. Her team had invested “tens of thousands” of dollars into the property. Communication with all of the religious institutions was either sporadic or non-existent until days before the Planning Commission meeting, as she and the city didn’t realize exactly how many were within the 1,000-foot setback. She held four meetings with neighborhood groups and the community. 

“The whole thing was really, really challenging,” VandenBerg said, adding that two of the religious groups didn’t submit letters of opposition until days before the commission meeting. “It was alarming and disappointing. The letters were very fringe opinions and had nothing related to land use. I really didn’t think (the Planning Commission) was going to take seriously the letters that said marijuana is evil.”

VandenBerg also submitted dozens of letters of support for the project, although Planning Commission members noted they weren’t generally from the neighborhood of the proposed dispensary. Initially, VandenBerg didn’t plan to appeal the decision to the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals, but now is considering it.

“No one is happy about this ordinance,” she said.

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