City staff authorized to begin working on zoning changes to allow medical marijuana dispensaries in Sarasota

City attorney hopeful first of three public hearings can be scheduled no later than December

City Attorney Robert Fournier addresses the City Commission on Sept. 18. News Leader photo

On a unanimous vote this week, the Sarasota City Commission authorized staff to begin work on a proposed zoning text amendment that would allow medical marijuana dispensaries to operate within the city limits.

Commissioner Willie Shaw made the motion, with a second from Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch.

City Attorney Robert Fournier said he was hopeful the first public hearing on the zoning text amendment could be held before the city Planning Board in November, though it might take until December to have the draft prepared and properly advertised. He foresees the City Commission conducting the first of its two required public hearings on the amendment in early 2018, he added.

Fournier spent about 20 minutes during the board’s Sept. 18 meeting reporting on staff discussions regarding potential changes to the city’s zoning code that would allow the dispensaries to operate either as principal uses or as accessory uses. The latter, he explained, would allow for them to be in grocery stores, for example, just as pharmacies are found in Publix stores in the community.

Fournier had provided details about the staff discussions in a Sept. 2 memo to the City Commission.

The memo and the Sept. 18 discussion came in response to board direction on July 3. On that night, the commissioners voted unanimously to prohibit any dispensaries within the city limits until staff could report back on how best to address the issue. That action followed in the wake of the Florida Legislature’s passage of a bill that allows dispensaries in all zoning districts where pharmacies are permitted, unless a local government votes to prohibit the dispensaries altogether.

Fournier advised the commission on July 3 that it had three choices: a ban on dispensaries; allowing the dispensaries in all City of Sarasota zoning districts where pharmacies are permitted; or the temporary ban.

“We do believe there is a viable way that the code can be amended to allow the dispensaries in the city,” Fournier said on Sept. 18, as staff had agreed in its discussions.

“I never had tallied up the total number of zone districts” in the city prior to the board’s July 3 vote, he continued. The number is 53, he added, but one of those is Marine Park. No structure is allowed in the water, he pointed out, so that zone did not figure into the discussions.

A city map of part of the downtown area shows Downtown Core (DTC), Downtown Edge (DTE) and Marine Park (MP) districts, among others. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Of the remainder, he continued, 15 are residential. Out of the other 37, he said, 25 have pharmacies. Based on past commissioner comments, Fournier pointed out, “we thought that might be a little more widespread distribution of the dispensaries than what the commission might be comfortable with initially.”

Thus, he said, staff broke down the 25 into two groups: those where pharmacies are allowed and do exist, and those where pharmacies are allowed but do not exist. Twelve of those districts do have pharmacies, he noted.

Then staff looked into the issue of “principal” uses versus “accessory” uses. Four of the districts had pharmacies that would have to be considered principal uses: Commercial General (CG), Commercial Shopping Center-Regional (CSC-R), Downtown Core (DTC) and Downtown Edge (DTE).

“Staff didn’t appear especially enthusiastic,” he said, about having pharmacies as a principal use in the Downtown Edge district, he noted.

If the commission wants to allow them as a principal use in Downtown Core, he added, “I expect there will be a lot of discussion about separation requirements.”

Nine districts have pharmacies as accessory uses, he told the board.

Pharmacies could be removed as permitted uses in the remaining 13 districts where none exists, Fournier pointed out. However, the board might want to consider allowing them in two of those districts: the Commercial Business Newtown District and the Commercial Tourist District, which is on St. Armands Circle.

Perhaps one other industrial zone could be included in that group, as well, he said.

“We would like to have a reasonable number of zone districts where a pharmacy would be allowed as a principal use and those would probably be the places where you would find a dispensary would initially be located,” he told the board.

City Attorney Robert Fournier included this chart in his Sept. 2 memo to the City Commission. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Staff is comfortable with the idea of a larger number of districts having pharmacies — and dispensaries — as accessory uses, he added, since the dispensaries would be within stores. “I don’t think that’s going to happen overnight” he pointed out of the latter situation, “but I think someday it could.”

When Commissioner Hagen Brody asked how confident Fournier was about the legality of the “accessory” use, Fournier replied, “I’m quite confident. … That is not an uncommon distinction,” Fournier added, based on his research into zoning codes.

When Commissioner Shaw asked for confirmation that the Commercial Business Newtown district could be included in the list for pharmacies, Fournier replied that that “is allowed to have a pharmacy.”

Fournier added that staff felt the accessory distinction would be preferable for that district, nonetheless. “So you wouldn’t have a freestanding dispensary right away.”

Only one member of the public addressed the board about the issue on Sept. 18. Glen Gilbellina, a city resident, encouraged the commissioners to be lenient in city requirements for dispensary locations. They are professional operations, he pointed not, not what the board members might envision as 1960s establishments selling “bongs and water pipes.”

“I encourage you to let [businesspeople] put [dispensaries] where they want,” he said.