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Council denies appeal, moving Main Street dispensary forward
Firehouse received approval from the Turlock City Council on Tuesday to move forward with opening a cannabis dispensary at 1601 W. Main St.

The top-ranked dispensary in Turlock’s cannabis pilot program will move forward with plans to move into its desired space on Main Street after the City Council denied an appeal against the location during their meeting Tuesday night.

On Jan. 16, Firehouse was unanimously granted a Conditional Use Permit by the Planning Commission to operate a dispensary at 1601 W. Main St. in the former Waffle Shop location. The building’s proximity to Osborn Two-Way Immersion Academy brought several community members to the January meeting in opposition of the business, and shortly after the meeting an appeal was filed by Turlock resident Ronald Bridegroom.

Typically, the approval of a CUP from the Planning Commission would be the final step in the process to open a dispensary in town, however, Bridegroom’s appeal required the item to go before the City Council for a final say. Bridegroom laid out his reasons — which he referred to as “strong, legal arguments” — for the appeal during a quasi-judicial hearing at Tuesday’s Council meeting. First, he believed the project had not won the support of the community; second, the proposed business would adversely affect neighboring properties; and third, the business would be detrimental to the public welfare of the community. All of these violate the City’s Municipal Code, he stated.

“Any one of these is enough for the Firehouse CUP to be denied,” Bridegroom argued.

Firehouse is one of four retail locations that will be allowed in Turlock as part of its cannabis pilot program, which saw the Council reverse its ban on marijuana operations when the program was approved in May 2019. The program allows for the four dispensaries and an unlimited number of cannabis cultivation, manufacturing, testing and distribution sites. Over 30 candidates applied to operate dispensaries in town, with City staff ranking each and selecting their top four; Firehouse was ranked No. 1.

The dispensary’s owner Devin Stetler operates dispensaries in five other Central Valley cities, including Modesto, Merced, Stockton, Ceres and Riverbank, and said Tuesday that concerns are a “natural part of the process” when opening up a new cannabis retail location.

During the dispensary’s Planning Commission hearing in January, parents, business owners and even one student stood during public comment to share their fears about a dispensary operating on West Main Street. Evergreen Packaging facility manager Edward Burton, whose business sits on the corner adjacent to the soon-to-be Fire House location, stated that he already deals with the local transient population that’s attracted to nearby services and doesn’t want the dispensary serving as a “temptation” for his workers, while a letter from Turlock Unified School District Superintendent Dana Trevethan said a dispensary near the school would be a danger to students traveling on foot and send the opposite message that the district’s annual drug-free campaigns strive to promote.

Much of the same concerns were heard at the Council meeting on Tuesday, including the notion that Firehouse would adversely affect the Days Inn and Comfort Suites hotels that neighbor the property.

Community members familiar with the area and Council member Becky Arellano refuted the idea.

“That motel itself is the worst motel ever,” Liz Padilla, who interacts frequently with the city’s transient community through the Helping Hands Ministry, said. She noted that she’s seen instances of prostitution and drug activity at the hotels.

Arellano owns a business in the area, she said, adding that she has never felt the area to be safe.

According to Stetler, the dispensaries he operates, including Firehouse when it opens, have 24/7 security monitoring and statistically deter crime from the areas they are located. The Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department has even used footage from his Flavors dispensary in Riverbank to help solve a crime, he added.

The Turlock Police Department responded to 173 calls for service at the Days Inn in 2019, ranging from calls for extra patrols and suspicious persons to aggravated assaults and sex offenses. Comparatively, officers have responded to 34 calls for service at Patient Care First, one of Stetler’s dispensaries in Ceres, since January 2018.

“You want us to base this on evidence. I consider this evidence. One of the issues that everyone’s bringing up is that the calls for service are going to increase in that area,” Council member Gil Esquer said after reading the statistics aloud. “I have not seen that to be the truth… I think if we’re going to allow businesses to come into town, we need to treat them like any other business that’s coming to town and give them a chance to make it or break it.”

In response to community complaints that said students would walk near the business thanks to a nearby bus stop, the elementary school down the street and a forthcoming Roselawn High School campus being built behind the movie theaters, Firehouse attorney Mike Warda commissioned private investigator Jeff Hopkins to observe the property.

Hopkins stated during the meeting that from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. March 3 through March 10 he observed the property and saw five individuals who could have been school-aged walk through nearby parking lots and the sidewalk east of the business, but never saw a child walk directly in front of the business. He did, however, witness a drug transaction take place in the nearby Burger King parking lot.

Warda added that the business has received community support. In a Google Docs survey sent to Turlock residents, 780 people said they supported the location and 40 were against it.

In her comments, Council member Nicole Larson also stated she believed the project had the community’s support after she knocked on the doors of houses in the surrounding neighborhood. Parents, grandparents and other homeowners “overwhelmingly” said they knew about the dispensary and were indifferent to the businesses opening up shop near their homes, she said. Though she appreciated the time and effort put into Bridegroom’s appeal, she disagreed with the points he made.

“I don’t see a lack of local community support. I truly believe with the evidence given to us that this business will not adversely affect activities that are already occurring in that parking lot, and in terms of public welfare. I think the public has made it very clear that, as you look at leakage of our community members going to other areas to purchase their recreational and medicinal cannabis products, providing a local, regulated option for them is not only good for those individual citizens, but it’s also good to choose regulation over what is occurring now, which is no regulation,” Larson said.

The City Council voted 4-1 in favor of rejecting Bridegroom’s appeal, with Mayor Amy Bublak casting the only “no” vote. Her vote was about remaining consistent, she said, as she has voted “no” on a majority of cannabis items due to its illegality at the federal level.

Though Firehouse will move forward with opening, Council member Andrew Nosrati let the community know their concerns did not go unnoticed.

“I know that this is a situation where every single business coming in before us is going to be very, very harshly criticized and there’s going to be concerns within the community. It is our hope that the people given the opportunity to win over the trust do that, and if they are not, they will be having their business license revoked,” Nosrati said. “It’s something that we don’t take lightly, and I do appreciate (Bridegroom) going to great lengths to evaluate this process and whether or not the neighbors are supportive of it. But I know that no matter what, the addition of this is going to be met with some resistance. It’s not asking for unanimous community support because nothing can really receive unanimous community support.”