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By Liz Highleyman
The Green Cross cannabis dispensary at 3412 22nd Street near Guerrero must find a new home by March, the San Francisco Board of Appeals recently ruled, but that may not be soon enough for some Fair Oaks neighbors.
As reported in the July/August 2005 Noe Valley Voice, some residents living near the Green Cross began complaining this past spring about a rash of crimes, parking violations, and nuisance problems they attributed to the pot club and its 200 to 300 daily customers.
"It seemed like things were getting out of control," Fair Oaks Street resident Veronica Gaynor told the Voice at the time. "People felt like they were losing their neighborhood."
After an informal neighborhood powwow at the Liberties pub in May and a well-attended community meeting the following month, District 8 Supervisor Bevan Dufty asked Zoning Administrator Larry Badiner to explore whether the Green Cross' change-of-use permit could be suspended or revoked. On June 10, the Department of Building Inspection suspended the club's permit on the grounds that it was creating "hazardous, noxious, or offensive" conditions.
Green Cross President Kevin Reed refused to close, claiming that the suspension order violated his rights to due process. But he did implement several measures to address the neighbors' concerns, including installing security cameras and an upgraded ventilation system, hiring a full-time guard, restricting sales to patrons who possessed valid patient ID cards issued by the Department of Public Health, and prohibiting on-site smoking by customers and staff.
Gulf Widens Between Two Sides
On July 15, Badiner held a public hearing at which more than 100 people eager to offer testimony packed two rooms at City Hall.
By then, positions on both sides had hardened. Instead of the quality-of-life issues that had been the focus of the initial public meeting, Fair Oaks residents now accused the Green Cross and its customers of endangering their children. Residents described open consumption and resale of pot outside the dispensary, armed robberies in broad daylight, and intimidation of neighbors by hostile patrons.
"The Green Cross has represented itself as a pharmacy, but it seems more like a nightclub," said 22nd Street resident Keith Wesselman. "To be treated like Walgreen's, they must act like Walgreen's."
Green Cross supporters, in turn, characterized the neighbors as "NIMBY" yuppies at best and racists at worst. Crime and parking hassles are part of city living, several said, and long predate the opening of the dispensary.
Pot club supporters were particularly dismissive of complaints that children were forced to smell marijuana when they were taken on school field trips to the Liberties. They insisted that kids are no more harmed by an awareness that some people use medical cannabis than they are by knowing that some adults drink alcohol.
Zoning Chief Seeks Compromise
A month later, at an Aug. 17 Board of Appeals meeting, Badiner asked that a discussion of the permit suspension be postponed to give him more time to collect public input. After studying written comments and receiving petitions with thousands of signatures from both sides, he proposed a set of recommendations he hoped might lead to a workable--if not amicable--coexistence.
The list included shortening the Green Cross' hours of operation, prohibiting staff from using medical cannabis during work hours, developing a traffic management plan, stopping the sale of T-shirts and other merchandise, and ceasing use of a storefront that served as Reed's office.
Reed and his supporters charged that the 33 proposed restrictions were too "drastic," and that the Green Cross was being held to higher standards than other popular businesses such as bars and restaurants.
Neighbors--who by now had formed the Fair Oaks Community Coalition (FOCC) and hired an attorney--were in no mood to compromise. Reed was a victim of his own success, they said, and such a booming business was not appropriate for an NC-1 neighborhood commercial district intended to serve local community needs. What's more, they argued, Reed could not control the behavior of his more unruly customers.
"[W]e believe their fundamental business model is incompatible with our neighborhood," the FOCC wrote in a letter to Badiner.
While most members wanted the Green Cross to close immediately, the group agreed the club could remain open for two months--under conditions even more stringent than those suggested by Badiner--while it sought a new location.
'The Right Use in the Wrong Place'
Complicating the issue was a city moratorium on new medical cannabis dispensaries imposed by the Board of Supervisors on March 29 and later extended through November. With the moratorium in place, the Green Cross could not simply move to a more suitable site.
As the Green Cross case wended its way through the appeals process, on Nov. 15 the supervisors adopted new legislation regulating marijuana dispensaries. Under the ordinance, introduced by District 5 Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi in June and heavily amended during the ensuing months, the 35 or so existing dispensaries will have 18 months to obtain permits from the Department of Public Health. Their applications (and those of any new medical marijuana clubs) must also be approved by the Planning Department.
The new law prohibits pot dispensaries from operating within 1,000 feet of a school or youth center--500 feet if the dispensary does not allow marijuana smoking on site. Hoping to forestall further clashes with neighbors, Dufty introduced an amendment preventing dispensaries from locating in NC-1 areas. At the behest of District 10 Supervisor Sophie Maxwell, industrial areas were also excluded. District 6 Supervisor Chris Daly carved out large areas South of Market. That left certain commercial districts located downtown and in parts of the Marina, Haight, Sunset, and Richmond districts.
At the Sept. 21 Board of Appeals meeting--which again drew more than 100 emotional supporters and opponents of the Green Cross--Badiner and board members expressed concern that a permit suspension or revocation at this stage could hurt the Green Cross' ability to relocate under the new ordinance--thus penalizing one of the few dispensaries that had bothered to go through the permit process in the first place.
Board President Hisashi Sugaya characterized the Green Cross as "the right use in the wrong place." Board members Katharine Albright and Randall Knox decried "NIMBY" sentiment in a neighborhood that, in Knox's words, had recently become "more expensive, whiter, and more middle-class."
Pot Club Looks for New Location
In the end, all parties agreed that the ideal solution would be for the Green Cross to relocate. The Board of Appeals voted to uphold the club's suspension, but to allow it to operate for six months--subject to Badiner's conditions--while it sought a new space.
"I think the board was really fair in what they did to satisfy a large group of neighbors and a large group of patients," Reed told the media after the hearing. "I think we won here tonight. The neighbors also won. It was a win for everybody."
"We believe the [Board of Appeals] got it right," the FOCC said in a prepared statement. "Noe Valley supports medical marijuana, but its neighborhood commercial districts cannot support uses that serve 60-70 customers per hour."
Dufty's response was: "I'm hopeful that this can be a win-win for all sides, that a more appropriate place can be found for the Green Cross, and the neighborhood can get back to where it was."
Although Dufty and Badiner said they were eager to help the Green Cross find a new location, no one pretends that the search will be easy, in light of the strict limitations in the supervisors' new ordinance.
"I want to assure the neighborhood residents that we are working diligently to find a new home," Reed told the Voice. "We have looked at 27 locations and are in the process of inquiring about another dozen. But thanks to the NIMBY-inspired location and proximity restrictions, finding a new location feels much like finding a needle in a haystack."