Planning Commission Delays Decision On Contentious San Bruno Avenue Dispensary

After a three hour hearing Thursday afternoon, the Planning Commission voted 4-to-1 to delay a decision on San Bruno Avenue Wellness—a proposed medical marijuana dispensary for the Portola neighborhood—until Sept. 21st.

After hearing dozens of public comments, Commission Vice-President Dennis Richards proposed a motion to continue the hearing until San Francisco's regulations under Proposition 64, California's recently-passed recreational marijuana legalization, are more clear.

"If we approve this today, what worries me is that I don't know what we're approving for the future," Richards said. "Prop. 64 gives cities and counties the ability to make [policy] more liberal or restrictive."

The commissioner elaborated that San Mateo County, which has a moratorium on medical marijuana dispensaries, could continue to restrict medical marijuana sales under Prop. 64. And if it does, SBA Wellness's location near the freeway could become a destination for "medical marijuana tourism," which could lead to quality of life issues for neighbors in the area.

The team behind SBA Wellness proposes turning the vacant commercial space at 3015 San Bruno Ave. into a dispensary selling medical marijuana for smoking, eating and drinking from 8am-10pm daily. It would not allow on-site smoking or cultivate plants onsite, but would install and use a charcoal air-filter indoors to address concerns regarding odor, Planning documents state. If the dispensary is approved, a security guard will patrol the front door as well as the "immediate neighborhood."

Stephanie Tucker, community outreach coordinator for SBA Wellness, said Friday that the commission's decision was "really unfair since we are filing to be a medical dispensary, not recreational."

While she had not spoken with the SBA Wellness owners regarding their plans for the next nine months while they wait for their next hearing, Tucker said the ruling "definitely presents a financial hardship."

 3015 San Bruno Ave. (center) in Portola. | Photo: Google Map

Community members for and against SBA Wellness moving in were passionate about the issue at two meetings in December—one in English and one with two Chinese translators present—and again during yesterday's hearing.

The proposed dispensary raised memories of a similar plan for the same building eight years ago when a previous tenant of the building withdrew an application for a dispensary called the Green Goddess Collaborative after "the vast majority" of a group of 150 neighbors opposed the idea at a community meeting.

This time around, Luke Spray, the San Bruno Avenue corridor manager for the Portola Neighborhood Association, says there was "an interesting split" between supporters and opponents of the dispensary.

The Planning Department received 208 letters of support and 70 letters in opposition to the project, a Planning Department representative said during the commission hearing.

Thursday's hearing was so full that an official stopped the meeting three times to send community members blocking the door to a nearby overflow room. Although the split of supporters and opponents was even in the Planning Commission's chamber, the hallway outside the hearing room and the overflow room down the hall were full of opponents to the dispensary. 

Community members wait to speak during the Planning Commission hearing. | Photo: Will Carruthers/Hoodline

Allie Yen, a Portola resident whose family has lived in the neighborhood for 20 years, spoke in opposition to the proposed dispensary.

"[A dispensary] is not appropriate for the area," Yen said. "[The Portala] is already an under-resourced neighborhood. We want something that provides resources for the community."

In response to the opposition, Tucker said that it's a "cultural issue" based on a strong stigma against marijuana within the Chinese community.

The Chinese Empowerment Center at 2798 San Bruno Ave. organized a phone bank against the dispensary and raised $2,300 to provided lunch and free shuttle service to ferry opponents of the dispensary to Thursday's Planning Commission meeting, Chinese language newspaper Epoch Times reported.

The Community Empowerment Center did not return a request for comment.

"There's a perception that marijuana is very bad for the neighborhood [among the Chinese community]," Spray also said of opposition to the dispensary in an interview on Tuesday. 

Heading into yesterday's hearing, SBA Wellness did have a few things going for it that the Green Goddess Collaborative did not. For one, the new tenants are reportedly more responsible than the 2009 applicants.

The SF Appeal reported that the building housed "a rub-and-tug massage parlor [as recently as 2008]." And when a reporter from the SF Appeal contacted the Green Goddess Collaborative in 2009, a paranoid-sounding representative "acted as if we were the FBI."

By contrast, Spray said that the owners of SBA Wellness have been "very proactive in doing outreach."

Medical marijuana dispensaries have been a divisive issue in southern San Francisco ever since the "green zones" written into the city's planning code allowed for more dispensaries along the Excelsior and Outer Mission corridors than in other areas of the city.

Incoming District 11 Supervisor Ahsha Safai staked a good portion of his campaign on his record of supporting anti-dispensary activists.

The potential home of SBA Wellness sits within District 9. According the Planning Department, the neighborhood and the "zoning district" currently lack any dispensaries. The nearest medical marijuana dispensary is The Green Cross, 1.5 miles away at 4218 Mission St. in Excelsior.

Incoming District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen did not immediately return a request for comment on the Planning Commission's decision.

Despite the dispensary saturation in the Excelsior, Portola—a District 9 neighborhood—does not yet have a dispensary and, due to the "green zone," there are very few locations in the neighborhood that can house a pot club, Spray said.

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Planning commission delays decision on contentious san bruno avenue dispensary