Should St. Charles change rules to accommodate marijuana dispensary?
One shop must be a medical dispensary's, but it's in wrong place
While setting regulations last month for recreational marijuana sales, St. Charles aldermen required one of the two permitted dispensaries to be linked to a medical cannabis facility that has operated within the city for at least a year.
Only one business fits the bill: Zen Leaf. But its existing shop is outside the zoning districts where the city's recently passed ordinance allows sales of marijuana for recreational use.
Zen Leaf operators are now petitioning the city to allow sales in a light manufacturing district -- a necessary step ahead of their request to sell both medical and recreational cannabis at 3714 Illinois Ave., its home for nearly four years.
But some neighbors and members of the city's advisory plan commission are questioning whether a marijuana retailer is a suitable use for that area, particularly given its proximity to a dance school.
A public hearing held Tuesday on Zen Leaf's applications was continued until Dec. 3 at the request of dispensary operator Healthway Services of West Illinois LLC.
The city's zoning code amendment, approved last month, allows one recreational marijuana shop on either side of the Fox River when a new state law takes effect Jan. 1. The special use is permitted only in the community business and regional business zoning districts, and a dispensary can't be within 250 feet of a school, day care, church or single-family residential area.
That leaves Zen Leaf in a tough spot, said Anthony Marsico, the company's executive vice president of retail. At this time, state legislation does not allow an existing medical marijuana facility to move to a new site in order to also sell adult-use cannabis, he said.
"We are tied to our location if we are going to operate as a medical and recreational (facility) under one roof," Marsico said.
Zen Leaf could open a separate retail shop within one of the city's permitted zoning districts, but "it wouldn't be in our best interest" from a business perspective, he said.
However, plan commission Chairman Todd Wallace said updating the city's zoning code to accommodate a specific business goes against one of its findings of fact, used to help determine whether a proposal should be accepted.
"That's a hard hurdle to get over," he said.
Some plan commission members also expressed concerns that Zen Leaf's current location is not appropriate for a retail operation, which would likely lead to increased traffic and a different set of customers than its medical facility.
The business is within an industrial-looking building on a quiet side street with low visibility and limited external lighting, member Jeffrey Funke said. And it's in the same complex as the Beth Fowler School of Dance, 3720 Illinois Ave.
The 250-foot separation requirement wouldn't apply to the dance studio, which is considered a specialized instructional school, St. Charles planner Ellen Johnson said.
But business owner Beth Fowler said her clientele consists of students ages 3 to 18, including the St. Charles East High School dance team, which rents space in her studio.
"We're very concerned," Fowler said. "I've been very open-minded ... but in every scenario I try to create, it just did not make sense for the safety of the kids (or) the safety of the business I've established over 36 years. It doesn't benefit me at all."
Plan commission member Laura Macklin-Purdy said she sees Zen Leaf's lack of visibility as a reason to consider approving its application. She also pointed to the business' high level of security and successful track record.
"It is a destination retail establishment," Macklin-Purdy said. "It's run with a very tight ship type of operation, and if there wasn't a dance school (nearby), I'm just wondering if we would be considering this the same way."
She and other plan commission members said they'd like to see more information about the dance school, as well as how a cannabis retailer would fit into that zoning district.
The public hearing continues at 7 p.m. Dec. 3, in the city council chambers, 2 E. Main St. The plan commission is expected to make separate recommendations on the proposed zoning amendment and on whether to grant Zen Leaf a special use.
The proposals would then have to go before the planning and zoning commission before being considered by the city council.