Cookies cannabis outlet approval upheld by San Diego planning commission

A fourth cannabis outlet has been approved in Sorrento Valley—no more will be allowed in District 1.

The Torrey Pines Community Planning Board lost its appeal to the San Diego Planning Commission to overturn the city’s approval of a new cannabis outlet in Sorrento Valley. On June 24, the planning commission upheld the decision to approve the Cookies outlet in a 5-1 vote.

Cookies is proposed to be a 5,412 square feet outlet inside an existing 6,676-square-foot commercial building on Sorrento Valley Road. The Cookies brand has 36 stores in 14 states across the country (some are named Lemmonade), including locations in Mission Valley and La Mesa.

For the record:

1:52 p.m. July 9, 2021The outlet was reported to be on Sorrento Valley Boulevard but it is located on 11330 Sorrento Valley Road.

On April 28, the city hearing officer approved a conditional use permit and coastal development permit for the outlet and the planning board filed its appeal in May.

In its appeal, the planning board contended that the project does not comply with the community plan, it is not an appropriate use at the location, it will increase traffic and that the business name is designed to attract youth.

The planning board asserted its belief that the cannabis outlet is not allowed by the Torrey Pines Community Plan as it states: “Development of freestanding retail commercial uses in industrial designated areas shall be restricted to those uses that serve only the immediate Sorrento Valley industrial area.”

Adam Gevanthor, Torrey Pines project review committee member, said the project disregards the land use plan by allowing non-industrial supporting retail users to displace the industrial users that the community plan sought to protect.

“Approving the project will change the character of the Sorrento Valley industrial area and adversely affect the vitality of the subarea, changing it from an area targeting surrounding biotech and university neighbors to one that is more cannabis focused,” Gevanthor said.

Gevanthor argued that the project should be considered a freestanding retail use that does not serve the local area but will instead draw customers from throughout the county.

The city does not consider it freestanding retail as there will be a separate tenant in the building. According to the applicant, 81% of the building will be used for Cookies with 19% reserved for a non-cannabis tenant—the space was occupied until April and a tenant has signed a lease for the fall.

The commission also heard from several speakers in opposition to the project as the Cookies brand is well-known and targets young people.

“Cookies is a dishonest representation of the product,” Gevanthor said. “The name Cookies is blatantly marketing to youth.”

While located outside the 1,000 feet separation requirement, youth-oriented businesses are in close proximity to the business, including Coast Volleyball, Del Mar Soccer Club, Frozen Ropes Baseball and Touche Fencing.

A maximum of four cannabis outlets are permitted per council district—all four, including the existing Med Men, Torrey Holistics and San Diego Recreational Cannabis (SCRC) will be located within a two-mile stretch in Sorrento Valley.

Due to San Diego’s minimum separation requirements, outlets are not permitted 100 feet from residential zones and 1,000 feet from public parks, churches, childcare, playgrounds or minor-oriented facilities. As the Sorrento Valley area is composed mostly of light industrial uses, it is the only area in District 1 in which an outlet can be allowed.

“We always have the opposition… and we always have the balancing act because there’s very limited opportunities to meet the city’s goal of maxing out the legal outlets,” San Diego Planning Commission Vice Chair James Whalen said. “I think the illegal outlets are a serious problem and the more we can do to address that with our effort, the better.”

The Cookies outlet is a replacement of a previously approved project—the approved application for a cannabis outlet on 11189 Sorrento Valley Boulevard, next to the Del Mar Union School District’s maintenance and operations office, was canceled in April.

Attorney Phil Roth, representing the applicant, said that the applicants found a new location and that this site is much better than the previous site for multiple reasons. The new project is not located next to the school district, it is further away from the Los Penasquitos Creek wildlife corridor (an environmental concern cited in the planning board’s failed appeal of that project in 2019) and it is in a stand-alone building rather than a 14-tenant complex with 84 parking spaces for customers versus just two parking spaces at the previous site.

“We very carefully designed this project in order to work with the objections of the planning board the prior time we got this thing approved,” applicant Brandon Johnson said. “The simple fact is that the planning board simply doesn’t like the plan but our project conforms to the (community) plan.”

While many of the commissioners said they struggled with their decision due to the valid concerns presented by the planning board, they followed city staff’s recommendation to deny the appeal, stating that it does comply with the community plan and land development codes.

The sole vote in opposition, Commissioner Douglas Austin, said he voted against it due to the project’s adverse impact on the health, safety and welfare of the community as well as the business name’s “deliberate targeting of youth.”

With his approval, San Diego Planning Commission Chair William Hofman said he is very familiar with the area as it is where he has his car serviced and often rides his bike: “In my mind, this is not a bad location for this use,” he said.

While the planning commission could make the findings to uphold the decision, none of them liked the Cookies name but it is beyond the scope of their authority—San Diego Municipal Code does not regulate business names.

The commission asked if the business could consider using just a logo instead but as project attorney Gina Austin noted, logos are prohibited by municipal code.

“I do think the name is very misleading,” Commissioner Kelly Moden said. “It doesn’t sit well with me. It’s not in our purview, but I think the applicant should really hear that.”