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Over objections from community members, Santa Rosa council allows new Roseland cannabis dispensary

With a 4-1 vote Tuesday, the Santa Rosa City Council approved a new Roseland cannabis outlet put forward by two Sonoma County businesswomen but opposed by some neighbors, community groups and Latino youth and student organizations.

The plans call for a 17,120-square-foot cannabis growing operation paired with on-site processing, sales and even a consumption lounge where customers can indulge in edible marijuana products, but not smoke it. The building is the former Sebastopol Avenue campus for Roseland University Prep, just west of the railroad tracks.

Representatives for the project, including business co-founder Nayeli Rivera, have touted it as an economic boon for the area and a new opportunity for the school site, which has sat vacant for 19 months.

But students and graduates of the relocated charter school were among the allied opponents contending the marijuana business was an unwanted imposition on southwestern Santa Rosa, a predominantly Latino area of the city.

The project was advanced in September by the Planning Commission in a 6-0 vote. The appeal to the council by opponents was supported by members of MEChA, a Latino student advocacy organization and the Latinx Student Conference.

“Our voices here are not being taken into consideration at all,“ Jesus Perez, a Roseland University Prep senior and MEChA member, told the council. ”We do not want to see you break our trust as you have over the last couple of years. Here’s a chance for you to do what is right by the community and listen to us.“

Over more than two hours of public comment, with each speaker limited to three minutes, opponents argued the business brought environmental or safety risks through a 500-square-foot manufacturing unit to extract oil from the plants.

Rivera called safety concerns about the manufacturing facility “negligible.”

The consumption lounge could lead to intoxicated driving on nearby streets and the dispensary could even increase area crime, some speakers contended.

Still others called in to the meeting to voice support for the business in the name of jobs and economic development. Employees and advocates of adult-use, recreational cannabis, legalized by California votes in 2016, bristled at being called “drug dealers” and compared to illegal narcotics trafficking in the city’s more crime-filled neighborhoods.

Underlying opposition to the dispensary was frustration that, despite years of talk from elected leaders and demands from community members, the city still has not named a site for a permanent public library in Roseland, or a long-sought community center with youth programming or public gathering spaces.

The city, in conjunction with the Sonoma County Library, considered leasing the old school site, at least briefly, in 2019, according to officials. Government officials did not then have dedicated funding to lease the building and they let the property go, Assistant City Manager Jason Nutt said Tuesday.

Since then, the city of Santa Rosa has earmarked $10 million to support the library project. Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, secured an additional $1 million through the state budget in July. The City Council has also considered whether $10 million in federal stimulus funds could go toward a community center. That question remains up in the air.

The four council members who voted for the project — rejecting the appeal — expressed anguish about casting a vote against the wishes of many Roseland residents, given the current council’s interest in investing in southwestern Santa Rosa.

“We fight for Roseland and we fight hard,” Councilwoman Natalie Rogers said.

”As far as the community center, as far as the library, we know, we’re coming. “It's not going to happen tomorrow, but we are working on it,” she said.

The City Council has for years heard residents’ concerns about safety and crime around marijuana dispensaries that have not come to pass, said Councilman Tom Schwedhelm, a retired Santa Rosa police chief. Schwedhelm said he had been opposed to the legalization of marijuana but had not seen significant public safety impacts as regulated businesses established themselves.

Councilwoman Victoria Fleming and and Councilman John Sawyer were the other two members voting in favor of the project.

Councilman Jack Tibbetts was the lone vote against, saying he opposes the licensing of on-site marijuana consumption until authorities develop a reliable method to quickly test if motorists are high in order to enforce driving under the influence statutes,

Mayor Chris Rogers and Vice Mayor Eddie Alvarez, Roseland’s first district-based representative, both recused themselves from the vote. Alvarez owns a cannabis dispensary, and Rogers said he had conducted a study for a consulting firm, 421 Group, that had worked on the project.

It is one five city approved dispensaries in southwest Santa Rosa, in addition to one already in operation.

See the map of cannabis retail applications in Santa Rosa:

Attachment 14 - Cannabis Retail Map.pdf

Located at Sebastopol Avenue east of the cross with Dutton Road, the former school building is bordered by industrial facilities to its north and south. Residential blocks are on its other two sides.

To the east, across the SMART rail line, is the Village Station development, a townhome development under construction that in November 2020 was planned for 110 units.

Rivera, who grew up in Petaluma and described herself as a first generation Mexican American, said she and her business partner, Cede Hunter, changed the name of the shop from Old School Cannabis to 100 Sebastopol Avenue Project in recognition of the consternation the original name caused some Roseland University Prep graduates.

“For those calling for infrastructure and equitable justice from the Roseland community, we want you to know that we support you,” she said. “We feel that equitable justice means providing places where people can work and earn a living with competitive wages.”

The business would bring as many as 50 jobs to town and the company would seek to fill many of those positions from within Roseland, Rivera said. It will also generate as much as $500,000 in annual tax revenue for Santa Rosa.

The hope is to open doors to the first customers in 8-12 months, Rivera said. It is one of five dispensaries approved for southwestern Santa Rosa, where one of the businesses is currently operating.

The Roseland School District Board joined the opposition to the dispensary.

“We’re not talking about a small storefront dispensary. We’re talking about a massive industrial enterprise,” board Chair Janice Siebert said. She argued the city was blowing an opportunity to tie Roseland into the rest of Santa Rosa by not turning the old school campus into a community space given its location on the east end of Sebastopol Avenue, closer to downtown, and its proximity to public transit.

Many echoed that comment. “The fact that there are more of us asking for a community center or a library in that site should be enough for you,” said Perez, the Roseland University Prep senior.

Ultimately, however, the council majority sided with the Planning Commission, finding the business owners had met city requirements, and that opposition from community members did not suffice to reject a legal marijuana business.

“Do I think this is the highest and best use of this property? I do not,” said Fleming. But the city did not own or lease the site. “We owe it to our residents and our prospective business owners to lay out a clear and understandable plan of how we do business.“ The council could not send back a permitting applicant that met the requirements because of political opposition, Fleming said.

Rivera argued that opponents where misguided in their view that a choice existed between a cannabis business or a cultural center at the site. “The city had no interest in the building and we went as far as offering it to them,” she said.

In a statement Wednesday, she said her team was dedicated to working with local nonprofits and advocacy organizations, including the food bank F.I.S.H, located just down the road.

“We want to be part of the solution to the social equity concerns that face Roseland, and be a leader as it moves into the future,” Rivera wrote. That included, she hoped, working with groups that had opposed the business.

You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or andrew.graham@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @AndrewGraham88

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