First public hearing scheduled for the 6 p.m. session
During its regular meeting next week, the Sarasota City Commission will hold the first of two required public hearings on a proposed ordinance to allow medical marijuana dispensaries in the city.
Because of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday on Jan. 15, the commission meeting will be a day later than usual — Tuesday, Jan. 16, at City Hall. The hearing is on the agenda for the evening part of the session, which will begin at 6 p.m. It is scheduled to be the first item after Citizens’ Input.
City Hall stands at 1565 First St. in downtown Sarasota.
With a unanimous vote on Sept. 18, 2017, the City Commission authorized staff to begin working on a proposed zoning text amendment to facilitate the operations of medical marijuana dispensaries. City Attorney Robert Fournier said at the time he hoped to have the document prepared for the first public hearings on it to be conducted early this year.
On Dec. 13, 2017, the city’s Planning Board voted 4-1 to recommend the City Commission approve the draft ordinance. Planning Board member Eileen Normile cast the “No” vote, saying she disagreed with the proposal to allow dispensaries to be located in the Downtown Core zoning district.
Vice Chair Patrick Gannon made the motion to recommend commission approval of the ordinance as proposed, saying the new regulations would provide a service to members of the public with valid prescriptions who need access to medical marijuana for their health and well being. He added that he felt city staff had presented a balanced solution to concerns about dispensary locations.
In June 2017, the Florida Legislature passed a bill that gave municipalities the flexibility to ban dispensaries. However, that bill called for any city that wanted to allow the facilities to enact no restrictions on them more prohibitive than those for pharmacies within that municipality. As a result, the City Commission agreed to a nine-month moratorium while staff worked on provisions of an ordinance that would meet the guidelines of the state law without opening the door, figuratively speaking, to dispensaries in all areas of the city.
The proposed ordinance would allow medical marijuana dispensaries — along with pharmacies — as a principal permitted use in four zoning districts: Downtown Core, Commercial General, Commercial Shopping Center-Regional, and Intensive Commercial District. That means the facilities could be freestanding.
In one district — Downtown Edge — a pharmacy at 110 N. Lime Ave. will be grandfathered in, City Attorney Fournier told the Planning Board members last month. That pharmacy is just north of Fruitville Road, he added.
The zoning amendment would not allow any new pharmacies — or dispensaries — as a principal use in that district, he said. However, they could operate as accessory uses to drugstores or grocery stores on property zoned Downtown Edge.
Eleven zoning districts have been proposed where a dispensary would be allowed as an accessory use to a drugstore or grocery store. (Fournier explained to the commissioners in September 2017 that this would allow a facility to be located inside that type of store.) Among those districts are Commercial Neighborhood, Commercial Business Newtown, North Trail, Commercial Tourist and Commercial Park.
Fournier pointed out to the Planning Board that the city has 20 pharmacies in 12 zoning districts. Five of them are principal uses, he noted, and they are spread among four of the districts.
The other pharmacies are accessory uses, he said, such as the facilities within Publix and Walmart stores.
During the Planning Board meeting, Normile asked how the city could allow a dispensary as an accessory use in a grocery store when dispensing is against federal law and a person can pay for medical marijuana only with cash.
Fournier replied that legal and practical constraints will remain for the foreseeable future, which is why he hopes the dispensaries will be proposed more often as principal uses. Nonetheless, Fournier added, he felt the ordinance should take into consideration future possibilities, including the prospect for a person to be able to pick up a medical marijuana prescription in a Publix store.
Moreover, Fournier said, city staff feels drugstores and groceries are well run, so they do not believe problems would arise with dispensaries inside those businesses.
Additionally, the ordinance would permit a dispensary as an accessory use to a hospital or medical center, so such a facility could be located in the Sarasota Memorial District.
City staff found in its research in preparing the draft ordinance that 13 zoning districts where pharmacies are allowed had none, so staff removed all but three of those districts from consideration, the backup City Commission agenda material explains. Two of those staff kept in the ordinance were Commercial Business Newtown, which covers the area along the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way corridor, Fournier told the Planning Board; and Commercial Tourist, which is the district that encompasses St. Armands Circle.
The third exception was the Intensive Commercial District, which was included among the proposed districts where dispensaries could be principal uses, he noted.
The proposed ordinance also calls for medical marijuana dispensaries to stand no closer than 500 feet from elementary, middle and secondary schools.