| THE PARTISAN
Photos and story by Royal Calkins
A plan to turn the defunct McShane’s Nursery into a country-and-western themed cannabis superstore along Highway 68 was derailed by the Monterey County Planning Commission on Wednesday but no one should be surprised if the Board of Supervisors gets it back on track because of the political muscle behind the proposal.
Although some commissioners support the project, the planning body voted against it 9-1 because county zoning rules and cannabis regulations make it clear that such a use simply isn’t allowed at the nursery location west of Salinas.
The property is zoned for farming but the county’s complex set of cannabis regulations allow dispensaries to be located only on property zoned for commercial or mixed use. It isn’t quite as simple as that, however. Before going out of business, the nursery was allowed to sell produce and nursery stock because the property had been used for retail purposes decades before falling under a farmland designation. County planning staffers said McShane’s had broken the rules by also selling housewares and boutique items but none of its retail operation sets any precedent for cannabis sales.
The plan calls for the manufacture and sale of numerous cannabis-related products and a relatively small greenhouse used for demonstrations and education projects producing marijuana that would be destroyed, or so say the applicants.
Some commissioners expressed frustration that they couldn’t bend the rules and ignore the planning staff’s blunt recommendation that the application be denied. Commissioner Martha Diehl commented, “I don’t see how staff could make any other recommendation.” Commissioner Paul Getzelman said the issue obviously needs to go to the Board of Supervisors “for more of a political decision.”
Deputy County Counsel Wendy Strimling said options that would allow a dispensary include rezoning the property or amending the county cannabis rules to allow dispensaries on farmland. Neither option would be a simple thing, however. A proposal to zone the nursery property as commercial could create pressure to rezone a couple miles of ag land between Salinas and the coastal foothills. Changing the cannabis ordinance could undermine county efforts to carefully manage dispensary locations with an eye to security issues and neighborhood impacts.
Despite the difficulty of either of those procedures, the odds are with the applicants when the plan reaches the highly politicized Board of Supervisors. The applicants are contractor Don Chapin, who heads the most active and successful political action committees in the region, and Ricky Cabrera, who heads a large ag harvesting company, serves on numerous community boards of directors and makes regular campaign contributions to a majority of the supervisors.
Cabrera is already involved in another Salinas Valley pot operation and at one point, the applicants were working with Grupo Flor, which has been one of the county’s largest cannabis operators.
Chapin is the former father-in-law of former nursery operator Steve McShane, the Salinas city councilman who is in the midst of a campaign for a county supervisorial seat. If McShane wins the District 4 seat in November, it would seem that the obvious conflict of interest would disqualify him from voting but a series of troubling court rulings could allow him to vote. Because of recent case law, government lawyers in California these days are advising supervisors and city council members that they are disqualified from voting only if they have a direct financial stake in the outcome.
The Board of Supervisors consists of John Phillips, Luis Alejo, Chris Lopez, Mary Adams and Jane Parker. McShane is competing against Parker aide Wendy Root Askew for Parker’s seat. Phillips is a close associate of Chapin’s, whose Salinas Valley Leadership Group has also provided strong support for Alejo and Lopez. The local marijuana industry is also suspected of assisting some board members indirectly, something that has been under investigation by the FBI.
One letter to the commission opposing the project was from Christian Schneider, a campaign consultant who initiated a continuing Fair Political Practices Commission investigation of Phillips, Lopez and others. Schneider said it was preordained that the dispensary application “will go to the Board of Supervisors in hopes all previous denials of the project will be ignored and they will be shown special favor.”
The Chapin/Cabrera application was turned down a year ago by the county’s Agricultural Advisory Committee because the new use could jeopardize continuing ag uses in the area. A former member of the committee, Bill Lipe, told the commission Wednesday, “It’s a simple question. Is it appropriate and legal? It is not.”
“Sometimes we get too caught up in policies." Ernesto Gonzalez
Schneider noted that details of the Chapin/Cabrera application have fluctuated over time, including square footage and descriptions of the existing nursery structures.
“I believe completing an audit comparing the numbers given in the various permits to the actual physical buildings could clear up the metaphysical aspects of their plans,” he wrote. “Chapin/Cabrera’s extraordinary request to change the rules just for their personal benefit warrants full due diligence from the Planning Commission before any appeal is heard.”
Speaking in favor of the venture were a number of Salinas residents, some of whom had been invited to speak by political consultant Sergio Sanchez, a former Salinas councilmember. Mostly young Latinos, they said they believed that increasing Cabrera’s involvement in the cannabis industry would help open the industry to other Latinos and help offset decades of law enforcement discrimination against Latinos using or handling marijuana.
The one commissioner voting for the project was Ernesto Gonzalez, currently a candidate for mayor in Salinas.
“Sometimes we get too caught up in policies,” he explained.
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