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An influential property owner tries to skirt county zoning rules on weed.

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Walking into the Monterey County Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday afternoon, Oct. 20, I had my metaphorical bet firmly placed on a split vote that would go in Don Chapin’s favor. There would be a pro forma discussion and some hand wringing, but in the end, I thought, three of the five elected supervisors would find a way to give the businessman and political mover and shaker – who has directed a lot of money their way, via his Salinas Valley Leadership Group – what he wanted.

And what he wanted was for the supervisors to ignore the county’s Ag Advisory Committee, the Planning Commission and county planning staff, all of which said no, and allow him and Salinas businessman Ricky Cabrera to open a cannabis operation at Chapin’s property outside of Salinas on Highway 68. The plan was for Chapin, as property owner, to get the approval and then lease the property, the former home of McShane’s Nursery, to Cabrera, who would operate it as the cannabis operation that would include cultivation, processing and retail sales.

The surprise was on me. Had all five supervisors figured out a way to ignore the Ag Advisory Committee, the Planning Commission, county staff and established zoning code, they would have, and construction probably would have started.

In August 2020, the Planning Commission said no to Chapin’s application because the property’s zoning doesn’t allow for retail sales of cannabis. Chapin – who like Cabrera, has a lot of friends in high places (pun not intended) – appealed the Planning Commission’s denial about 10 days after their vote. County Resource Management Agency staff also recommended the supervisors deny Chapin’s appeal for the same reason: Cannabis sales are only allowed in light or heavy industrial or mixed-use zoning areas. While retail sales have taken place on the property for decades, cannabis sales are still prohibited under that particular zoning.

At Tuesday’s meeting, RMA staff told the supes there were a few alternatives to consider: Chapin could seek a zoning code amendment, he could have the property rezoned or he could apply for it to be a Special Treatment Area. But there are problems with each of those too.

An amendment would allow commercial cannabis retail sales on all farmland-zoned property, meaning there would be countywide implications. Rezoning it would conflict with the county’s Memorandum of Understanding with the city of Salinas. And a special treatment area would require review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and take a few years to complete.

I’ve seen Chapin get aggro at Salinas City Council meetings, but before the supervisors, he was measured. The site, he pointed out, has had a commercial component for decades and is considered legal nonconforming. He’s spent $2 million improving the property since he purchased it, and called it an opportunity to create jobs and generate more tax revenue.

“This is an adaptation of the business,” he said. “If we’re intensifying anything, we’re intensifying the county’s oversight.”

Supervisor Jane Parker suggested Chapin remove cannabis sales from the plan and go with cultivation and manufacturing. Not doable, Chapin said, likening it to opening a Starbucks and then being told he couldn’t sell the coffee that was made inside. Sales are “the only way economically this project will work,” he told the supervisors.

Public comment was long. Either Chapin or Cabrera amassed a small army of young, Latinx callers via Zoom who reminded the supervisors that Covid-19 and the economic shut down hit them hard, and that they shouldn’t turn down an opportunity to approve a project that would create jobs. There were detractors too, who noted supervisors Chris Lopez and John Phillips are under investigation by the state Fair Political Practices Commission for campaign finance violations involving the Salinas Valley Leadership Group PAC.

In the end, the supervisors said neither no, nor yes, nor maybe. By a 5-0 vote, they asked Chapin to seek a zoning amendment or a special treatment area they would then try to fast-track through the approval process.

The next hearing will happen on Jan. 19.

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