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Marijuana dispensary

Different types of marijuana sat on display in January at Oakland's Harborside dispensary.

The virtual fences separating Napa’s future marijuana shops from places where children gather may be pulled in closer, amid complaints from would-be sellers and cannabis supporters that city rules remain too restrictive.

Cannabis stores would be allowed as close as 600 feet – rather than Napa’s current minimum of 1,000 feet – to schools, parks and other youth-oriented hubs, under an ordinance change the Planning Commission endorsed Thursday. The revision also would open up sites even closer than 600 feet, the minimum under California law, when waterways form an “impenetrable” barrier to walk-in access, an exception the city already grants for properties close to Highway 29.

More permissive zoning for those selling smokable marijuana and cannabis-laced foodstuffs depends on a vote by the City Council, which may take up the matter as early as June. Council members in March instructed city staff to look at pulling back the separation of dispensaries and children’s gathering places to the state minimum.

The move by Napa’s land-use authority followed complaints by legal marijuana advocates that the city’s ordinance allowing dispensaries, which took effect in January, rules out too many sites to give users a local outlet anytime soon. In addition to forcing dispensaries to space themselves farther from schools and children’s hangouts than the state requires, the city law largely keeps them away from the downtown core by allowing the storefronts only in office parks, light industrial zones and medical office areas.

“I have a pretty liberal view of cannabis, and I find it odd that (buying it) is more restrictive than buying a pack of cigarettes or a bottle of Jack Daniel’s,” Gordon Huether said before voting with three other planners in favor of more lenient zoning. “I partake of both, but they both do more damage than cannabis.”

Commissioner Alex Myers, a Napa attorney, recused himself because of clients he said “have a vested interest in this matter.”

Only three applications to open cannabis-based businesses have come before Napa under its new ordinance. While city officials have accepted two of them, the fate of the third largely depends on softening existing barriers, said Alicia Rose, who is pursuing a 1,000-square-foot HerbaBuena outlet on Enterprise Way in the south of town.

Rose’s future shop would be less than 1,000 feet from a corner of the Napa Golf Course that forms part of Kennedy Park – a youth gathering place under Proposition 64, the voter-approved 2016 state law opening the way to marijuana sales without a doctor’s recommendation. However, the Asylum Slough cuts through the area and would block access from that direction.

“There is no way you can walk across the slough to get to that property,” said Rick Tooker, community development director.

Even when Napa lets sellers set up shop closer to youth-oriented sites, other cannabis supporters worried that too broad a definition of a “youth” center could choke off the supply of properties still further.

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Anne Steinhauer, a consultant to the Napa Valley Cannabis Association, asked city planners whether dispensaries would be allowed near dance and martial-arts studios frequented by children and teenagers but also adults – and questioned the risk to youths who usually go to and from such businesses without lingering outside.

“If you’re dropping off your kids at the karate studio and then picking them up again, is it really an issue if a dispensary is operating 600 feet away, when the kids are being supervised?” she said.

Whether to count such businesses as children’s hubs from which cannabis sellers must keep their distance has become a flashpoint for debate elsewhere in California. In March, the Lompoc City Council narrowly voted to require 600-foot buffers around five dance studios in the Central Coast town, only to reverse itself April 3 when one council member changed his previous vote, according to the Santa Maria Times.

Despite disputes over such details – and Napa’s measured pace toward legal sales – Huether asked supporters of wider cannabis availability for patience.

“A half a loaf is better than none,” he said. “Keep gentle pressure on our electeds, and we’ll get to where you want to go. But we’re not in Amsterdam yet. … You’ve got to pick your battles, pick where you put your pressure so it makes the most sense.”

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City of Napa/Town of Yountville Reporter

Howard Yune covers the city of Napa and the town of Yountville. He has been a reporter and photographer for the Register since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.