A zoning officer has decided to take the issue of allowing a medical marijuana dispensary to open in Ahwatukee Foothills under advisement. A ruling must be made within 30 days.

Nature’s Healing Center applied for a variance from the city of Phoenix to allow it to open a medical marijuana dispensary at 4902 E. Warner Rd. The company needed a use permit and a zoning variance because the dispensary would be too close to Child Time day care and a plot of land zoned for residential use.

The dispensary’s owner, Mike Richards, held an open house in Ahwatukee Foothills on Monday, May 20 to address concerns of neighboring businesses and residents. Seven people showed up to the event.

The zoning hearing in downtown Phoenix on Thursday, however, was full of parents, children and lawyers. The issue was debated for over an hour before a decision to take the issue under advisement was made.

For a variance to be granted a hearing officer must find that four conditions exist:

• There is a special circumstance applying to the building or land use.

• The special circumstance is not self-inflicted.

• It is necessary to grant the variance in order for the owner and applicant to enjoy reasonable and substantial property rights.

• The variance would not be detrimental to the surrounding neighborhood and community.

Peter Valenzuela, chief executive officer of the Genesis Group Public Affairs, represents Richards. Valenzuela said he’s confident a decision will be reached quickly. The dispensary must open by August 7 or the owner will lose his license, according to state law.

Several Ahwatukee Foothills residents argued against the dispensary during the hearing saying it would lower property values in the area and raise crime rates, neither of which has been proven by independent studies according to David Dow, Richards’ attorney.

Craig O’Loughlin, an attorney who has helped represent Harvest of Tempe, a dispensary that recently opened at Elliot and Kyrene Roads, stood and argued against granting the variance because the case does not meet the standards necessary, the federal government may target the dispensary because of it’s closeness to a school and because he fears there may be something fraudulent about the way the applicant got their license from the state.

O’Loughlin explained that during the application process an applicant must get their use approved by the city, or possibly the county, they are applying to go into. That piece of paper must be included in the application for a dispensary to be added to the lottery and awarded their license. Once an applicant has a license for a certain Community Health Analysis Area (CHAA), the applicant may move to a different location within the same CHAA.

Nature’s Healing Center says it got its approval from the county, which assumes their first choice for a location would have been on the county island. When O’Loughlin’s clients tried to get approval from the county for that county island located within Ahwatukee Foothills, they were turned away, he said.

“He’s confirmed that the county was the entity that approved him to get the license in the first place,” he said. “What I’m saying is, no way. Bill Montgomery made it absolutely clear that they would not approve the use.”

Because of the way the law is written, nothing about the medical marijuana program is a public record, according to Laura Oxley, communication director for the state’s Department of Health Services.

Nature’s Healing Center maintains that they received a signed letter from the county and that it was included in their application.

“To qualify for the lottery you have to have all your paperwork that comes from the local jurisdiction or the county,” Valenzuela said. “You can’t have anything falsified. The state calls and verifies it ... Anything that came from the county had to be double-checked by the state for him to compete. When the application process started there was a lot of flux. There were applicants moving through the county process for use permits all the time at the beginning… Only mid-process did the county change that as a policy.”

Richards’ application was the only one approved for the Ahwatukee Foothills CHAA. Richards was able to produce the letter he received from the county. It is signed by Darren Gerald, deputy director of the county's planning and development department.

The city’s zoning hearing officer will also be searching for that letter over the next few days and researching other issues brought up during the hearing. She promised to keep those who were at the hearing up-to-date on her decision.

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