In the coming months, Napa may pull in the invisible fences separating schools and youth gathering spots from the places where their elders are primed to sell medical marijuana.

Changes to the city’s ordinance allowing legal cannabis sales are within sight after the City Council on Tuesday asked Napa staff to pen a rewrite to ease its mandatory 1,000-foot buffer between dispensaries and schools, parks, youth clubs and other places where children and teenagers gather.

A revamped law, sought by cannabis advocates and would-be retailers decrying Napa’s current rules as too restrictive, could allow such stores to operate as close as 600 feet to child-friendly locations – the same minimum set by California law – while adding exceptions for even closer-in sites where freeways and waterways block direct walk-in access.

Those changes could mark the first major shift in a dispensary policy that took effect less than two months ago, following years of debate and an earlier law Napa officials rescinded in 2013 for fear of a clash with federal policy that continues to brand marijuana as an illegal drug of abuse. A rewritten ordinance would require approval by the Planning Commission and council members at a later date.

Napa’s belated passage of its cannabis-selling ordinance in November appeared to mark the end of a years-long debate. But the restrictions on where dispensaries can open – only sites zoned for industry, medical offices and office parks are eligible – left some hopeful sellers dissatisfied with the choices available, and city officials have identified only two sites offered by applicants that have met all the conditions.

In supporting a more lenient 600-foot buffer around schools and parks, Councilmember Scott Sedgley went a step further – suggesting that Napa could mark out the minimum not as the crow flies, but by the shortest possible path over actual streets. “(Even) if it’s 1,000 feet, it needs to be 1,000 feet in how you get there – we don’t fly,” he said.

Such an interpretation may never get off the ground, however. After the meeting, City Attorney Michael Barrett warned that state law has no such “path of travel” language in its requirement of buffers around cannabis sellers, and that such an attempt risks placing retailers illegally closer than 600 feet to youth gatherings.

Councilmember Doris Gentry also urged a pullback to a 600-foot buffer, and asked for more natural features such as the Napa River to be accepted as “impenetrable” pedestrian barriers to marijuana stores within that limit.

Even the definition of what a “youth” gathering place truly is seemed troublingly vague to Gentry, pointing to a potential dispensary location on Enterprise Court that – barely – falls afoul of Napa’s current 1,000-foot boundary because it faces a small portion of the Napa Golf Course, where Asylum Slough separates the two.

While the golf course is part of Kennedy Park – a children’s gathering place under the city ordinance – Gentry questioned how many children likely congregate on its fairways and greens.

“How many 3-year-olds play golf?” she quipped. “I know it’s called Kennedy Park, but I can build an apartment and call it Doris’ Park, and that doesn’t make it a park.”

The owner of a property on Jordan Lane warned such ambiguity about “children’s” facilities also threatens his plan to accept a dispensary in what is otherwise an industrial and commercial area far from schools. Chad Williams asked the council whether the nearby Academy of Danse qualifies as a youth center, even though adults also study there. That is a question that could determine whether he can welcome marijuana sales in his own building, which previously housed the Joy Luck House restaurant.

One person giving a red-light signal to opening up more potential sites was Mayor Jill Techel, who announced she would support a continued 1,000-foot minimum as a sign to police officers and educators that she takes seriously the risk of overexposing cannabis products to younger Napans.

“Changing the ordinance to allow seven to 10 dispensaries is problematic to me,” she said of the extra sites an overhauled law potentially would make available. “… It’s a dispensary; it’s not a business that we can receive sales tax from. We moved forward on this as a service, as a way for people to have safe access and to have it in town. Two or three dispensaries is about what I had in mind.”

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