Del Mar school district fights marijuana facility next door to Sorrento Valley office

A new retail marijuana facility is proposed right next door to the Del Mar Union School District's maintenance and operations office.

The Del Mar Union School District is opposing a marijuana retail facility that has been proposed right next door to its maintenance and technology office in Sorrento Valley.

At a Sept. 16 hearing, San Diego City Council denied an appeal of the environmental determination for the proposed Strainwise facility. It will now move forward in the process to the San Diego Planning Commission for its conditional use permit.

The school district’s office entry is side-by-side with the entrance to the proposed Strainwise marijuana outlet, located inside the Venture Commerce Center home to 14 other businesses on Sorrento Valley Road. The complex is adjacent to a park-like green space and is considered a Los Penasquitos Creek wildlife corridor and watershed.

“Not only is this proposed dispensary directly next to our maintenance, operations, facilities and technology offices, which in and of itself is extremely disconcerting, the proposed project has some potential environmental impacts that have not been thoroughly investigated through the CEQA process,” said Del Mar Union School District Superintendent Holly McClurg.

“This is not the right location.”

According to Jeffrey Szymanski, senior environmental planner with the city’s department of development services, the city conducted a preliminary environmental review pursuant to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and determined that the project would not result in a significant effect on the environment. It was found to be exempt from CEQA study as it is a facility proposed for a vacant space within an existing building and would have “negligible or no expansion of existing use.”

San Diego City Council and the Planning Commission have seen several CEQA appeals for proposed marijuana outlets and production facilities as applicants jockey for space in line for the limited amount of permits allowed. The city has a cap of four marijuana outlets per district and a cap of 40 citywide for marijuana production facilities.

In this case, the two appeals of the environmental determination were filed by the Torrey Pines Community Planning Board and Venture Commerce Center Sorrento Condominium Association. The appeals argued that the complex will see an expansion and intensification of use that would result in direct impacts on the wildlife corridor, adjacent floodway and Los Penasquitos Creek due to increased noise and lighting caused by the retail outlet’s extended hours.

“Staff determined that none of the issues apply,” Szymanski said.

The marijuana outlet would be the only retail facility in the complex and DMUSD Executive Director of Capital Programs Chris Delehanty argued that the increase of traffic, as well as the extended hours of operation to 9 p.m., should qualify as an expansion of use that would trigger further CEQA review.

“Retail operations is a change in use and will cause a dramatic increase in traffic, both vehicular and pedestrian,” Delehanty said. “It will be an impact to the environment.”

The parking lot in front of the proposed Strainwise marijuana outlet.
(Karen Billing)

Representing Strainwise, attorney Phil Rath said while no one doubts the sincerity of the opponents’ arguments, the issues presented are not CEQA-related but are rather permit questions about whether the use should be allowed there. He said those issues would be more appropriately addressed at the Planning Commission when the project seeks its conditional use permit.

Rath said the project’s location is a “pretty ideal valley” for marijuana retail outlets— Sorrento Valley already has two in operation with Torrey Holistics and MedMen and a fourth proposed in the Pacific Sorrento Technology Park on Sorrento Valley Road is currently under city review.

Marijuana outlets are not permitted 100 feet from residential zones and 1,000 feet from public parks, churches, childcare, playgrounds, minor-oriented facilities and schools and Sorrento Valley has “turned into a good place for these to go,” Rath said.

“There is no substantial evidence of a significant impact on the environment,” said Gina Austin, representing the applicant. “Just being next to a sensitive habitat is not enough to find a reason that this exemption is not accurate.”

Austin said that the facility is almost directly below the Interstate-5 freeway and it is “simply nonsensical” to argue that the amount of cars going into a parking lot adjacent to the lagoon is more detrimental than the existing I-5 and Sorrento Valley Road.

“We have seen this same CEQA process abused time and time again by opponents of cannabis legalization and other NIMBYs as tools to create roadblocks for increased access to legal and licensed cannabis,” said Dallin Young , political director of the Association of Cannabis Professionals.

In October 2018, the Torrey Pines Planning Board voted 9-3 to recommend denial of the the Strainwise outlet. The planning board’s denial was based on concerns about public safety, the lack of parking and the environmental issues. The denial also cited that the CC&Rs for the Venture Commerce Center Sorrento Condominium Association state specifically that marijuana dispensaries are not allowed. Austin said they are contesting the CC&Rs because she does not believe the amendment prohibiting marijuana retail was validly passed.

For public safety, two armed security guards are required to be present at all times, however, while Strainwise will be bullet-proofed, the DMUSD’s large glass office frontage just inches away will not be. The district’s reception area, offices and conference room will be within a few feet of the armed guards.

“We’re not NIMBYs, we have supported the industry when it’s appropriate to the spot. This is not,” said Dennis Ridz, chair of the Torrey Pines Planning Board.

DMUSD and other complex tenants deny the applicants’ assertion that there is enough parking. Dentist Jeff Muehl said he has been in the center since 2009 and parking has always been “atrocious.”

Strainwise is required to have nine parking spaces for the estimated 50 to 60 customers that will visit each day and its nine staff members (approximately three employees at a time), “There is no way that there’s enough parking,” Delehanty said.

Delehanty said the parking lot also has inadequate drive aisles that only allow one car to pass at a time and the complex is a one-way right turn in and out of traffic on Sorrento Valley Road, which could result in back-ups and bottlenecks.

During the city process for what is now the MedMen facility, Ridz said the planning board argued that there was not enough parking. After the applicant was granted approval, it was sold to MedMen who in addition to painting the entire former bank building red, designated 10 parking spots for staff only. Ridz said users of the outlet are now parking illegally at the train station and running across the street because there’s not enough parking,

“We weren’t listened to,” Ridz said. “When we tell you we have researched these things, we have looked into it.”

City Council President Pro-Tem Barbara Bry questioned city staff on every point the opponents’ raised and said she was satisfied with the answers as well as the staff report. She made the motion to deny the appeal and move the project forward in its conditional use permit review—the City Council vote was unanimous.