Striking a careful balance that shied away from an explosive debate over whether to ditch Mountain View's retail cannabis laws altogether, City Council members agreed Tuesday night to place more restrictions on where commercial pot can be sold within the city limits.
But the heart of the ordinance itself -- allowing up to four retail marijuana businesses within city limits -- prevailed Tuesday night. A motion to scrap the law and ban pot shops fizzled in a 2-5 vote, with Mayor Lisa Matichak and Margaret Abe-Koga in favor and Alison Hicks, Ellen Kamei, Chris Clark, John McAlister and Lucas Ramirez opposed.
The changes accepted by council members, including bigger buffer zones around schools, were surgical compared to the impassioned comments by the huge and deeply divided crowd at the meeting, many of whom advocated for either leaving the law untouched or killing the whole thing. A staggering number of people -- more than 130 -- spoke to the council over the course of nearly four and a half hours, with attendees spilling out of the council chambers.
A majority of those comments broadly opposed retail marijuana sales in Mountain View, with many calling for no cannabis businesses at all, citing a wide range of statistics and anecdotal stories about how it would ruin the family-friendly feel of the city, increase crime rates and damage the health of children and teens. Many pointed out that Milpitas had reversed course and banned dispensaries in November, and said Mountain View could do the same.
In October, the City Council set Mountain View apart from neighboring cities by voting to allow retail cannabis businesses to open in the city, laying out a lengthy process in which businesses could apply for conditional use permits. The ordinance allows a maximum of four cannabis businesses, of which two can be retail storefronts and two can be "non-storefront" warehouse and delivery businesses that can't make sales to walk-in customers.
Ten applicants are currently seeking one of those coveted spots through a lottery process, with the lottery scheduled to take place on March 27.
But just four months after approving the retail marijuana law and with the permitting process in full swing, newly elected Councilwoman Kamei proposed last month that the council take a step back and consider more restrictions, and a majority of the council agreed. Kamei insisted at the Tuesday meeting that her decision was not intended to be a political pivot from the prior council, and was instead an acknowledgment that "new information" has come to light and demands a revisit of the pot laws.
In particular, she said a new school proposed at the San Antonio shopping center left her uneasy about the area being a permitted zone for marijuana businesses, and that it may be worth enlarging the 600-foot buffer between cannabis businesses and all schools in the city, both public and private.
The decision to revisit the pot laws drew fast criticism, particularly from former council members. Former councilman Lenny Siegel, who lost his bid for re-election, said new council members Kamei and Hicks never took a clear stance on commercial cannabis or suggested they would seek to revise the law. Weakening the cannabis business laws after campaigning against them would be one thing, Siegel said, but it's quite another to propose surprise changes.
Despite the limited scope envisioned by Kamei, a groundswell of residents saw the March 5 meeting as an opportunity to drastically restrict marijuana businesses in Mountain View or ban cannabis sales altogether, reversing what they considered a huge misstep by the council in October.
"It will hurt the safety of our community," said one woman. "I am seriously thinking of moving away from Mountain View even though I really like it and it is (my) hometown for almost 10 years."
Some speakers argued that Mountain View, by being the only city between San Jose and Redwood City to allow marijuana businesses, would suddenly become a destination for an unsavory crowd, while others felt that Mountain View's decision undermines the moratoriums of its neighbors.
"Right now there is a plan to open a drugstore in my backyard, and I don't like that, and that will make all the past efforts by Sunnyvale council and Sunnyvale residents to fight against (marijuana) ... go to waste," said one man, shortly before accusing his opponents of having neurological damage caused by marijuana use.
Some of the most vocal critics against cannabis businesses in Mountain View have rallied behind a group called Better Mountain View, describing itself as an organization of volunteers objecting broadly to legal marijuana sales within the city's limits. A notice distributed by the group ahead of the March 5 meeting warned that the businesses would increase crime rates, threaten traffic safety and expose children and teenagers to drugs.
Speakers from both sides traded a dizzying number of data points and statistics at the March 5 meeting, much of it coming from Colorado and Washington. In numerous nearly identical letters sent to the council prior to the meeting, residents quoted data from former U.S. Attorney Bob Troyer, who claims that black market sales, youth marijuana usage and marijuana-related traffic fatalities are all up since legalization. These figures have been criticized as either misleading or incorrect.
Nearly 68 percent of the city's voters supported Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, in 2016, and 81 percent of Mountain View voters approved a tax on commercial cannabis sales by voting yes on Measure Q in November 2018. Supporter of retail marijuana in Mountain View point to this as proof that a silent majority supports cannabis sales, while opponents argue that it would be disingenuous to think those yes votes amount to a resounding endorsement of dispensaries.
Jackie McGowan, a representative from the public policy firm K Street Consulting, said the debate in Mountain View is a part of a larger issue: that marijuana is now legal to purchase, but 80 percent of the 482 cities and 58 counties in California still do not allow legal purchases within their jurisdictions. She said all eyes across the state are now on Mountain View as it weighs a potential reversal.
"I find it very concerning that a vocal minority continues to persuade local elected officials to thwart the will of the voters," McGowan said.
Mountain View resident Andrew Gasperini said voters made it overwhelmingly clear, more than once, that they are okay with retail marijuana within the city limits, and that he doesn't buy the argument that downtown Mountain View would be less family-friendly with a cannabis store. Plenty of businesses serve alcohol and bar entry for anyone under the age of 21, he said, and retail cannabis wouldn't be any different.
"Given the fact that marijuana has garnered almost twice as many votes as every single one of you council members every time it has been on the ballot, I seriously think you should consider your course of action," he said.
Councilman Clark said he was fully prepared to adjust the retail marijuana law based on "new information," which he said includes the San Antonio school proposal and the 10 applications received by the city, but he urged the council to avoid tearing up the ordinance passed in October. He said the city has an ongoing tradition, when a new council is sworn in following an election, to "respect" past decisions and avoid upending years of work.
"When we voted to start going down the path of adding housing in North Bayshore, we didn't rip up the (North Bayshore) Precise Plan that the prior council just passed," Clark said. "We didn't institute moratoriums, we didn't pull permits from people who have started investing in the process."
"Regardless of how one feels about cannabis or votes that occurred in the past, what we should focus on here is new information that we've received," he said.
Councilwoman Abe-Koga, who made clear from the outset that she opposed marijuana businesses in Mountain View, took a different approach and made the failed motion to reject the law and ban the businesses within the city limits. She said she questioned whether Mountain View would really get anything positive out of allowing cannabis businesses, and said her vote on Proposition 64 was for decriminalization -- not for stores in her neighborhood.
"We have not voted as a city to allow cannabis shops here," she said. "Let's be clear on what we voted on."
Abe-Koga also criticized people, including Siegel, who she believes turned the debate over marijuana into a racial issue because of the significant number of Chinese-American residents who oppose the law. She claimed she was asked by Siegel why Asian people oppose pot and that she didn't know how to answer. It feels like stereotypical comments have pushed a narrative that the opposition is a vocal minority of mostly Chinese residents, she said.
"If 50 white people show up to talk about housing we say that was a lot of people and we listen to them. But if we have 300 Asian people show up, why is there this question about whether they live here or if they're a minority or not? I really take offense to that," Abe-Koga said. "This is not a racial issue, and somehow it has been made to be one."
After the meeting, Abe-Koga told the Voice that a large number of Asian-American parents were galvanized by the issue and got involved in city politics, many for the first time, and that it was a strong grassroots community effort. For whatever reason, she said the ethnicity of this opposition group was suddenly a factor, and it reached a point Tuesday night where residents had to qualify their comments by identifying themselves as supporters of cannabis shops even though they are from the Chinese community.
"There are a lot of racist undertones in this conversation," Abe-Koga said.
Compromises on the way
All of the City Council's actions at the March 5 meeting must come back for a second vote, but council members did agree on several changes that would restrict where cannabis businesses could be located -- all while preserving the maximum of four businesses.
Two ideas put forth by Clark that ultimately won majority support were to allow only one retail cannabis store in downtown Mountain View, and to require a half-mile buffer between any two pot businesses. Prior to the 10 applications being submitted in February, Clark said he didn't expect so many interested businesses to be clustered tightly in the downtown corridor, and that his goal is to spread them out.
"I should have seen it coming, and I regret that I didn't before," Clark said.
Kamei proposed removing the city's San Antonio Precise Plan area from the allowed areas for retail marijuana businesses, which passed 6-0, with Ramirez recused due to a potential conflict of interest.
The most closely divided vote was over Abe-Koga's proposal to boost the size of buffers between cannabis businesses and "sensitive" land uses, including schools, substance abuse rehabilitation centers and churches. She said San Jose has 1,000-foot buffers between marijuana stores and schools and 150-foot buffers from places of religious assembly, and Mountain View ought to follow what has worked in San Jose.
Clark argued that the larger buffers make sense for San Jose because it's more than 10 times larger than Mountain View, saying that it would exclude large swaths of Mountain View. The motion passed 4-3 with Clark, Hicks and McAlister opposed.
One major challenge in making changes to the law is that 10 businesses are already going through the application process, with a lottery scheduled March 27 to determine which four will move forward. City staff couldn't say for sure at the meeting whether the council needed to adopt an urgency ordinance to suspend the permitting process until the law is amended.
Clark said his goal is to avoid amending the law in ways that unfairly hurts applicants who have poured time and resources into the process.
"I just don't want to get into a situation tonight where people who really invested time and money based on a prior decision that was made, whether we as a current council feel that was a good decision or not, are sort of being punished," he said.