City Changes Rules to Ban Weed in Sunset

Lawmaking in San Francisco is a time-intensive process — except when there's an emergency, like the one Supervisor Katy Tang's office dealt with in late April.

Tang — the Board of Supervisor's youngest member, who serves the Sunset District where she grew up — introduced new legislation on April 21. Usually, new laws go through a 30-day waiting period before the next step. But Tang was in a rush. “This is very timely and needed in a short period of time,” Tang aide Ashley Summers wrote in an email that asked for a hearing within a week.

At first the board's nonelected staffers rejected relaxing the rules to accommodate such an unorthodox hurry. “[W]e say no to this type of request as it is a high risk scenario to get things wrong,” explained Board Clerk Angela Calvillo, who, after some begging and finessing, was convinced to play shepherd. “Honestly you made a special plea for this so we will make it happen, and make every effort to get it right for you,” Calvillo told Tang in an email.

Tang's elected colleagues took care of the rest: Board of Supervisors President London Breed waived the 30-day rule, and clerks for the board's Land Use Committee calendared the item on May 4. After a committee hearing that lasted less than 10 minutes, the item went to the full board the very next day, where it was approved by a 9-2 vote. From bill to law in two weeks — a near-record and a rarity in any legislative body.

What was the crisis that precipitated such a flurry of activity? A legal medical marijuana dispensary.

For almost six years, a group of Bay Area cannabis entrepreneurs — not capitalists or techies, but regular folks over 50: a former Sunset District high school teacher, a contractor with a farm in Mendocino, and a city native in a wheelchair — have been trying to convert an old chiropractor's office on Taraval Street into a city-licensed cannabis club. For a short period of time in 2010, Paul Hansbury (the contractor) and Greg Schoep (and his wheelchair) had a license to do just that.

There's a compelling argument to be made for a Sunset pot club. There are none, almost 20 years after California okayed medical marijuana. In that time, “clustering” of clubs in other parts of the city has been identified as an issue by city planners.

Thus far, the idea has proved vastly unpopular with a vocal group of neighbors. But that's not why the club isn't open. Legal weed is staying out of the Sunset in large part thanks to a confusing and poorly written zoning law, as well as city officials like Tang and her predecessor, current Assessor-Recorder Carmen Chu, who have changed the law or found exceptions to it in order to do so.

After a marathon City Hall hearing in 2010 that lasted until 3 a.m., the city's Planning Commission issued the dispensary a permit. There was no legal reason to deny it — until city officials found one. Buried deep in the city's planning code was a typo. There's a section of code that refers to land uses — like preschools — from which pot clubs must maintain a safe distance. That same section of code references another section — and that section doesn't exist.

There was political pressure from Chu and public pressure from neighbors armed with Reefer Madness-era attitudes about marijuana to beat back the club. But it was the typo that the city's Board of Appeals used to legally revoke the permit — a move that had never been done before or since.

Fast forward a few years. Washington and Colorado have legalized recreational cannabis. An overwhelming majority of Americans support medical marijuana. Chu moves onto higher office, and a former aide who worked on the pot club issue — Katy Tang — succeeds her. Since Hansbury and Schoep have a long-term lease on the chiropractor's office, they decide in 2013 to try again with a Sunset pot club. Eighteen months after they file their application, a hearing at Planning is scheduled. But one week before the hearing, it's delayed indefinitely. Another typo? Close.

In 2012, about six months before leaving office, Chu authored legislation making zoning in the Sunset more complicated. To Judah, Irving, Taraval and Noriega streets, she added “neighborhood commercial districts,” zoning areas meant to encourage pedestrian-friendly use. Weed clubs are allowed in neighborhood commercial districts, via the city's typical planning process (called “discretionary review”). That's an easier hurdle than the “conditional use” process — which city planners “discovered” the weed club needed, one week before its discretionary review hearing.

There's another section of code that requires businesses in neighborhood commercial districts to be “active uses” — that is, pedestrian-friendly businesses. The Planning Code includes marijuana dispensaries on its list of these, but they weren't on that list in Chu's 2012 legislation. Hence the tougher hurdle. A citywide change to the zoning code, signed into law by Mayor Ed Lee earlier this year, makes it clear that pot clubs don't need the tougher approval process. But Tang's “emergency legislation” was written to reverse that change and apply the tougher conditional use process — just in time to make the process tougher for three other cannabis dispensaries with permit applications in process.

In comments to SF Weekly, Planning officials admit the code is vague. Maybe shoddy lawmaking is to blame. But from a certain perspective, the affair reeks of gamesmanship.

“We have been trying very hard to do everything right. They keep changing the rules on us — sometimes making them up as they go,” said Hansbury. “There are some who would argue that there's malicious intent.”

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