Why St. Charles postponed vote on whether medical dispensary should sell recreational pot
Zen Leaf operators have no doubt their medical marijuana dispensary in St. Charles can withstand the demands of the recreational cannabis industry.
But city aldermen on Monday said they aren't sure the shop at 3714 Illinois Ave. can accommodate the additional parking needs, increased traffic and large crowds they've witnessed at other suburban dispensaries since a state law legalizing adult-use pot took effect Jan. 1.
For nearly two months, Zen Leaf has been petitioning the city to permit recreational sales in a limited manufacturing district -- a necessary step ahead of its request to allow the special use at its unit within the St. Charles Commons complex.
How such operations would affect neighboring businesses, including a dance studio, has been among the key concerns during meetings on the topic, including three public hearings late last year. The advisory plan commission ultimately voted 5-4 to recommend approval of Zen Leaf's proposals.
On Monday, the council's planning and zoning committee postponed a vote on the issue until next month, when aldermen expect to resume their discussion.
Recreational cannabis dispensing currently is permitted in the community business and regional business districts, per a set of special-use regulations approved by the city council in October. The provisions allow no more than two shops in town, one of which must be linked to a medical marijuana dispensary that has a year of experience in St. Charles.
Alderman Todd Bancroft says he backed that initial zoning change in hopes of protecting Zen Leaf's medical business, which has operated about four years in St. Charles. But adding recreational sales at its existing location wasn't what he had in mind.
"At the end of the day, I really don't view those as the same business," he said. "I think of one like a pharmacy, and I think of the other like a liquor store."
Zen Leaf representatives disagree. Other than the credentials required for customers to enter the facility, the two operations are "virtually identical," said Anthony Marsico, executive vice president of retail. And despite an anticipated increase in activity, a study completed by the company shows no substantial impact on traffic or parking.
State law prohibits Zen Leaf from relocating in order to sell both medical and adult-use cannabis under one roof. Alderman Ron Silkaitis suggested the business "compromise" by leaving the medical dispensary as is and using its option to open a separate recreational-only shop in one of the city's permitted zoning districts.
Legally, that's an acceptable option, Marsico said, but it's not feasible from a business perspective.
"We lose out on the opportunity to operate two adult-use facilities," he said. "That's a drastic blow to our business model."
Zen Leaf has been working with other St. Charles Commons tenants in hopes of addressing concerns about lighting, security and traffic. The business has secured enough parking to exceed city requirements and is looking at other options for overflow traffic, Marsico said.
Zen Leaf's efforts are appreciated but have led to some unintended consequences, said Beth Fowler, who owns the dance studio at 3720 Illinois Ave. Having an armed security guard in the parking lot, for example, raises red flags to parents and dancers, rather making them feel safer, she said.
"It's not a marriage that works," Fowler said.
St. Charles Commons also has been informed that its liability insurance won't be renewed this spring if Zen Leaf decides to allow recreational marijuana sales, said Linda Reilly Murphy, who represents the complex's association.
Aldermen plan to discuss whether recreational marijuana sales should be allowed in the limited manufacturing district -- and specifically at Zen Leaf -- during the next planning and development committee meeting Feb. 10.