The Fresno City Council sent a pointed message to City Manager Tommy Esqueda, cannabis project manager Jennifer Ruiz and the rest of the city administration at Wednesday’s cannabis license appeal hearings: Do better next time.
Fresno lawmakers appealed five out of the 21 licenses that were awarded by the city.
Notable similarities among the appealed candidates revolved around community displeasure and the proximity to schools.
Perhaps none attracted more heated passions and served as the center of the discussion than a Cookies Lemonnade dispensary to be located the northwest corner of Blackstone Ave. and Minarets Ave. in District 2.
The property line would violate city’s cannabis ordinance, sitting within 800 feet of nearby Pinedale Elementary School. However, the application met the city’s criteria because the proposed building would hug the boundary and not cross over into the buffer zone.
Councilman Mike Karbassi appealed the license on the basis of its proximity to Pinedale Elementary School and the concerns raised by Clovis Unified School District and the neighborhood.
“It seems a little ironic to me that it’s Red Ribbon Week and I stand before you as I’m teaching our kids to say no to drugs, I’m having to fight a dispensary going into my community close to where my children are,” Pinedale Principal Debra Bolls told the council.
Karbassi asked local businesswoman Kacey Auston-Tibbets, the majority owner of the dispensary, if she reached out to Clovis Unified throughout this process.
Her answer was no.
“They’ve never reached out to me as a principal. They’ve never attended a Pinedale Community Association meeting. It’s us. It’s us and the community because we care about our kids. We’re very invested in our kids,” Bolls said.
“To think that somebody’s going to profit off of the children of Pinedale, I have a problem with that. Where’s the equity in the fact that we are the poorest neighborhood in all of Clovis Unified and we’re trying to change things. You should be helping us to bring in positive things to our kids.”
Clovis Unified Superintendent Eimear O’Brien discussed the investments that the district has made in recent years into the Pinedale community, and she argued that the addition of a cannabis dispensary just down the street from the school – where secondary students also congregate to wait for buses – is contrary to the needs of the surrounding neighborhood.
O’Brien also told the council that one student at Pinedale was wearing a Cookies sweatshirt at school. She said the student and the student’s parents had to be educated on the fact that Cookies sells marijuana.
“What we’re doing is working, and our concern is that as our children continue to navigate all the barriers and obstacles that poverty and other things of that nature bring to them, having to walk past a business of this nature every day on the way home, navigating the clients of this business – I’m just going to say it’s a concern for us that young children going to Kastner and Clovis West are going to be navigating a pathway every day several times where people who are frequenting this business could interact with our students,” O’Brien said.
Karbassi noted that Cookies Lemonnade’s Pinedale location had achieved the highest score in the city’s rating process, but it was “the worst location in this city to put a dispensary.”
“Of all the schools in my district, the one that probably faces the most multi-generational poverty, it’s not the application that’s the problem,” Karbassi said. “The fact of the matter is the location is the biggest problem, and there’s just no way of going around that.”
Karbassi moved to reject the license, and his colleagues supported him unanimously.
Although Auston-Tibbets lost the Pinedale license, she walked out of City Hall as the only winner on Wednesday.
She is also a senior partner of a different Cookies Lemonnade dispensary located in the Tower District that was up for an appeal.
Councilwoman Esmeralda Soria appealed the license, seeking to gain more public input for the dispensary that will set up shop at 1264 N. Wishon Ave. in the former Bank of America building.
Soria posed questions regarding community investment, security, public safety, diversity and social equity, among other topics, to Auston and the others in the ownership group.
Following questions from other councilmembers, Soria motioned to approve the license but did not provide any reason for her support.
The council voted 6-1 to approve the license. Councilman Garry Bredefeld was the lone vote in opposition, saying he would vote against all of the licenses on Wednesday on the principle that he disagrees with the concept of bringing recreational cannabis dispensaries into Fresno.
While Soria supported Cookies Lemonnade in the Tower District, she did not back The Artist Tree, which would have been located 1426 N. Van Ness Ave.
While she posed a similar line of questioning to the ownership group of The Artist Tree as she did to Auston, Soria did not move to approve the license, meaning the license was revoked.
Soria did not provide any comments on her decision to not support The Artist Tree.
The two other dispensaries up for appeal were in District 3, both of which were located in the Tower District.
Like Soria, Councilman Miguel Arias appealed both licenses in order to gain more public input in the process.
First up was Haven, which would have been located at 335 W. Olive Ave.
The Haven ownership group did not show up in person at City Hall due to a company-wide employee event occurring in at the same time. Instead, the owners presented Haven virtually over Zoom, a decision that earned some scathing criticism from Council President Luis Chavez.
“So your employee event was more important than this presentation,” Chavez told Haven Chief Operating Officer Mark Simonian.
“No it wasn’t more important,” Simonian said.
“That’s the message you’re sending today by the way,” Chavez replied.
Public Cannabis, which would have been located at 1220 E. Olive Ave. was the last dispensary to be appealed.
Arias moved to reject both licenses, which the council agreed to on a 6-0 vote. Soria recused herself due to personal ties to the businesses.
Following the vote, Arias explained his decision to go against the dispensaries.
“Both of these applicants share a fence line with residential neighbors. There’s proximity to Muir Elementary, Susan B. Anthony Elementary School, Roeding Park, Ted C. Wills Community Center and Park. The record does include hundreds of residents from each of those areas opposing these applications based on these factors and others referenced on the record,” Arias said.
“Just as a final point, the council has invested millions of dollars in the Tower District over the last couple of years. We’ve invested intentionally in older neighborhoods and improving parks, cleaning up the trash, addressing the homelessness and opposing any attempts to saturate any kind of controlled substance for adults in any of these neighborhoods.”
At the conclusion of the meeting, Bredefeld raised an issue regarding the entire license awarding process, which he thought could invalidate all of the approved dispensaries.
As first reported in GV Wire, there is a discrepancy in the paperwork for a January 2020 ordinance which amended the city’s cannabis ordinance.
The ordinance, signed by then-City Clerk Yvonne Spence, recorded a 4-2 vote with one absence. The next page in the ordinance, with then-Mayor Lee Brand’s signature, reports that the vote was 3-2.
Fresno City Attorney Doug Sloan confirmed that the final certified copy of the ordinance indicated that it passed with four votes in approval.