Supervisors unanimously approve Loe Firehouse project on Madrone and Arnold
By Jay Gamel
A cannabis Dispensary first proposed back in 2017 won unanimous approval from the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Sept. 14, despite vocal opposition from neighbors who have threatened to sue over the decision.
Loe Firehouse owners John Lobro and Samantha Smith are looking forward to getting the long-delayed project underway, despite having to bring the sidewalk up to current codes. The business will open in an 1,891-square-foot portion of a surplused firehouse at Arnold Drive and Madrone Road, with customers parking off Arnold and employees and delivery parking on Madrone.
“We will take our appeal to the next legal level and since we believe the issues are so obviously clear-cut, we believe we will ultimately prevail on the adjudication of the 100-foot residential setback interpretation, the proper parking calculation, and the outdated and incomplete traffic study which provides a significant California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) violation,” opposition spokesman Paul Morrison said after the hearing.
Lobro and Smith are the second owners of the project, after the original applicant, Apothevert, sold it after a 5-4 negative recommendation from the Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Committee in May of 2018. Originally intended as a medical- marijuana-only business, Lobro and Smith revised the application to include recreational cannabis after county laws were changed in 2018 to allow it. Even so, the county has limited the number of cannabis dispensaries to a total of nine. Six permits have already been granted, now seven, with the addition of a new Dispensary just outside the city of Sonoma earlier this year.
Planning commission staff of the Board of Zoning Adjustments (BZA) supported the project, with conditions, and all five BZA commissioners concurred following a four-hour hearing on April 8. The Board of Supervisors hearing on Sept. 14 was a less lengthy reprise of the April hearing. After hearing from 20 people on both sides of the issue, all five supervisors voted to approve.
First District Supervisor Susan Gorin, who represents the district involved, was visibly reluctant to fly in the face of the vocal opposition, but also voted to deny the appeal and approve the project.
“It’s complicated,” Gorin said. “I think we know anything associated with cannabis is complicated and produces controversy in the community. We have some passionate opinions that have divided neighbors and certainly across the community.”
“We sent in well over 350 letters … but they put in 70,” Morrison said earlier. “If you have a thousand [support] letters why did they not submit them? We submitted all of ours.”
James Gore, who represents the Fourth District (North County), expressed some frustration at that challenge. “One of the things that I find every time we get into these land-use hearings … number one, we always have the popularity contest. This is a land-use discussion.”
Assertions that the county was not following its own rules on setbacks, parking space calculations, and floor space figures were dismissed in the face of staff responses.
Only part of the building’s total space was considered when determining the number of parking spaces needed. The county uses different formulas for different types of businesses, and the 17 spaces determined here were deemed appropriate. During a discussion on the parking space calculation, it was suggested that the applicant may be able to convert the empty top floor of the building into some form of housing.
The bigger issue of setbacks was also a nonstarter, though Supervisor David Rabbitt suggested a second look at the existing requirement that dispensaries be at least 100 feet away from residences, since all six previous applications required exceptions. The exceptions were approved because of the nature of the settings, with enough separation (a street, a sixfoot fence, and another business) from the Dispensary to homes to warrant relief from the absolute requirement.
“The setbacks are based on a factual finding and [staff] have laid out a lot of facts in the resolution that accorded why that reduction can be warranted in that case,” Gore observed. “That’s really sitespecific; each project stands on its own analysis.”
The traffic study done for the original application was sufficiently reviewed in the current process to not require a complete overhaul, supervisors found. A revision to state rules that apply a different metric to trip mileage and impact would only work to the applicant’s favor, Gorin said. The recent opening of another Dispensary near the city of Sonoma would only reduce the traffic count, not increase it.
Well aware of the neighborhood discontent with existing parking and traffic, Gorin added a review of the use permit after two years, rather than the five-year review typically called for by this type of permit.
“I’ve really been wrestling with this for a long time,” Gorin said. “I have been going back and forth and back and forth and really looking at the community concerns and letters, and I’m going to be voting to deny the appeal and uphold the application.”
Gorin did ask the Department of Public Works to help lessen the costs to bring the adjacent sidewalks into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). “This may be the only time to get ADA-compliant sidewalks around the building and there are kids walking and people walking to the bus stops,” she said.
For the immediate future, Lobro and Smith will take a few days off and dive into developing the project with hopes of getting it open by the first half of next year.
“Sam and I thank our friends and family for their support during this long haul,” Lobro wrote after the hearing. “We seemed crazy at times. The process is not healthy for normal, independent, local people like us. But we made it and we plan to be a really positive influence on the community.”