Published in Economic Development

Litigation ‘highly likely’ with new GR cannabis restrictions, city attorney says

BY Wednesday, September 30, 2020 04:09pm

GRAND RAPIDS — New zoning restrictions on cannabis businesses near youth centers in Grand Rapids are “highly likely” to face litigation, the city attorney’s office says.

At its Tuesday meeting, the city commission voted 6-1 to approve ordinance changes that include labeling youth centers as a sensitive use, requiring a 1,000 setback distance for new cannabis facilities applying for a license. The change applies to businesses seeking a city license after Sept. 29.

The youth center restrictions were opposed by the city attorney’s office, planning staff and the city planning commission.

Deputy City Attorney Philip Strom called it “highly likely” the city will see legal challenges based on what he has seen in other municipalities.

“Additional restrictions add the chance that litigation will come,” Strom said during the Tuesday meeting.

City planning staff also disagreed with the change, which had been under consideration for months, since it’s not clear how many youth centers exist in the city.

“I have given this issue significant consideration, thought and care, and ultimately agree with the planning commission’s decision to not include youth centers as a sensitive use,” said Grand Rapids City Planning Director Kristin Turkelson.

Turkelson cited multiple reasons for excluding youth centers as a sensitive use, particularly since it’s unclear how many are in the city. Youth centers do not require state licensing to operate, and the city does not issue land use or building permits associated with youth centers, Turkelson said.

Commissioner Jon O’Connor was the lone vote against the zoning changes. 

“This is all around bad policy with this amendment,” O’Connor said during the meeting.

Other sensitive uses near cannabis businesses include schools, childcare centers, substance use facilities, publicly owned parks, playgrounds and religious institutions. Any cannabis establishment that has received land use approval prior to Sept. 29 will not be subject to the new youth center restrictions. 

“This is frustrating — we have an appointed planning professional who has provided us with her recommendation that this is a bad idea,” O’Connor said. “We have an appointed planning commission who unanimously said this is a bad idea, and we have a legal department that said this is a bad idea.”

Commissioner Joe Jones countered that he supports making youth centers sensitive uses because he believes young people are disproportionately affected by peer pressure.

“If it’s something that is going to further protect youth, then I’m in support of it,” Jones said. “This will not be a major roadblock for people already in the process.”

The changes approved Tuesday define youth centers as a government or nonprofit that has programs for a minimum of three hours a day year-round on its premises primarily for people under 18.

“It’s a terrible definitional problem for what is a youth center,” said Ben Wrigley, a partner at Grand Rapids-based CannaLex Law.

Grand Rapids is the first municipality Wrigley has heard of to designate youth centers as a sensitive use. Communities have the privilege of defining their own guidelines and restrictions for cannabis businesses, Wrigley said. 

“I really struggle with many of these additional sensitive uses, but I understand there are people extremely concerned about the potential effect the cannabis industry may have on communities and neighborhoods,” Wrigley said.

The city commission also voted to eliminate the ability for future cannabis business applicants to apply for a sensitive use waiver. 

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