Fourth medical marijuana dispensary in unincorporated areas of Sarasota County wins approval on 4-1 vote

Commissioners Moran and Ziegler lament inability to prevent the companies from ‘flipping’ to recreational marijuana sales if state legalizes the drug

The newest medical marijuana dispensary is planned for a storefront in the Cape Coral center on South Tamiami Trail. Image from Google Maps

The Sarasota County Commission’s 4-1 vote this week to approve the fourth medical marijuana dispensary in the unincorporated areas of the county followed the pattern of the three previous decisions.

Commissioner Mike Moran cast the lone “No” vote after failing to get an affirmation from the petitioner that, if recreational marijuana becomes legal in Florida, the new dispensary would not be transformed into a recreational marijuana store.

“No disrespect to the applicant,” Moran said, but “I’ve made it crystal clear how I feel about this. The medical [marijuana dispensary situation] is a Trojan horse.”

As a member of the County Commission, Moran continued, he feels he should “do everything within my power” to see that that the dispensaries do not transition into recreational marijuana retail shops.

Commissioner Christian Ziegler joined Moran in that view on Aug. 27 — just as Ziegler did in July, when the application for the third medical marijuana dispensary came before the board.

On Aug. 27, Ziegler tried several times to get Tom Gretz of Orlando, the agent for Surterra Wellness, to assert that the facility would continue in the medical marijuana business only.

“Whatever guidance is passed through the state, we would follow,” Gretz told Ziegler, adding that the company also would comply with any specific county restrictions.

Surterra had applied for the required Special Exception to open the dispensary in a Commercial General zoning district.

Commissioner Christian Ziegler. File photo

When Ziegler asked Assistant County Attorney Joshua Moye if the commission had any flexibility to prevent what Ziegler characterized as “a flip,” Moye pointed out that county law prohibits non-medical marijuana in all zoning districts. However, Moye said, the Legislature could pre-empt local regulations if recreational marijuana were legalized.

“We’ve already approved [three] of them,” Commissioner Nancy Detert pointed out of the Special Exceptions for the dispensaries. “We didn’t make [previous applicants] swear on a Bible [that they are] not going to sell recreational [marijuana]. … Even if [Gretz] commits to it today,” she continued, “he could get out of it tomorrow.”

Commissioner Alan Maio talked of his worries that, six years from now, when he no longer is on the board, his name will be listed with a “Yes” vote “on 20 of these things.”

He told Gretz, “I do sit here uncomfortable as I watch you artfully dodge the answer [to Moran’s question], but it’s the same answer, if I were in your shoes, I would give.”

After the exchanges with Gretz, Detert made the motion to approve the Special Exception. When Chair Charles Hines called for a second, no other board member responded, so Hines ended up making the second himself.

Referencing Maio’s earlier comment, Detert added, “I would just like to say I don’t love my name being on this [approval], either. I’m not a marijuana user,” she continued, “[and I do not] “intend to be one. I don’t have pain other than what’s inflicted on me on a daily basis by the general public.”

Nonetheless, Detert pointed out, voters made medical marijuana legal in the state, and the Legislature approved regulations for the implementation of that constitutional amendment. “We don’t have a choice. It’s been passed. It’s state law.”

An aerial map shows the location of the planned Surterra Wellness dispensary. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Hines noted earlier that he supports medical marijuana, having learned that people with conditions such as cancer and chronic pain benefit from using it. Yet, he said, “If we’re going to get one of these [applications] every month … that’s the Trojan horse.”

If a new law allows the dispensaries to make the transition to recreational marijuana sales in the future, Hines continued, the public needs to be aware of the dispensaries’ locations. He talked of the potential of recreational marijuana stores being widespread, calling the situation “the equivalent of a liquor store on the corner of [many neighborhoods].”

Facets of the latest request

This latest facility is planned for the parcel located at 7349 S. Tamiami Trail in Sarasota, which comprises 0.41 acres, according to a county staff report. A note in the report says that no members of the public attended the required Neighborhood Workshop, which was conducted on Feb. 6.

The staff report added that the dispensary would “occupy vacant space within a strip commercial building. … The southernmost unit in the existing commercial building will be leased to Surterra Wellness … No physical changes to the outside of the building and property are proposed except for new signs, as required by code.”

The strip center is adjacent to commercial uses to the north, south and east, the staff report also noted.

This is the Binding Development Concept Plan for the Surterra facility. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The county Planning Commission approved the Special Exception request on an 8-0 vote, an Aug. 27 staff memo said.

Commissioner Maio did seek reassurances from the agent for Surterra, Gretz, that armed guards would be present at the dispensary and that the products would be “locked away.”

Surterra Wellness already has 28 locations in Florida, Gretz replied. “We comply with all of the county regulations,” including installation of surveillance systems, he said. Additionally, the products on display are made with olive oil, Gretz noted. The items sold are “stored away in a secured safe in the back of the facility,” he explained. Access is by key card only, he added.

“So you already have 28 of these?” Maio asked.

“Correct,” Gretz replied.

Surterra’s website says it has locations in North Port, Bradenton, Tampa and Lakeland, among other municipalities.

The company’s website also notes, “Surterra brand products are all grown in our state-of-the-art facility — the largest greenhouse on the East Coast, where we use no harmful chemicals or ingredients in the growing process.”

The petition was listed on the Aug. 27 agenda as “Presentation Upon Request.” Moran was the commissioner who asked for Gretz to come forward to answer the board members’ questions.