Judge Orders Release of Secret Documents Behind County Award of Five Retail Pot Licenses
By Melinda Burns
In the wake of a court order, the County Executive Office is releasing the applications and scoresheets of the teams that competed for five out the six cannabis dispensaries that will be allowed in unincorporated Santa Barbara County.
The applicants for dispensaries in Los Alamos, Santa Ynez, Isla Vista, Eastern Goleta Valley and the Carpinteria Valley may now obtain their own final scoresheets and the preliminary and final scoresheets for their competitors, plus copies of competitors’ applications (with proprietary financial and security information redacted), by emailing Brittany Heaton, the county’s top cannabis analyst here.
Members of the public, Heaton said, may request the same information.
The applications and scoresheets for Orcutt will not be released yet, Heaton said. The county’s selection process for a cannabis dispensary there has been put on hold, pending the outcome of a lawsuit in Santa Barbara Superior Court.
(Editor's note: The high-stakes fight over the retail licenses is the latest legal backwash from the permissive 2018 ordinance by which the Board of Supervisors, led by Das Williams, has sought to implant a vast new cannabis industry into the county.
Although local voters in 2016 approved Prop. 64,. which legalized recreational use of marijuana statewide, the sweeping Santa Barbara pot policy later implemented by the supervisors, which has had dramatic unintended consequences, was heavily influenced by industry lobbyists with close access to Williams, and was never put before voters).
Trouble in Orcutt. The release of documents that had been kept under wraps for months was ordered by Superior Court Judge Colleen Sterne beginning June 11, in a lawsuit filed against the county by Natural Healing Center Orcutt 405.
The center is co-owned by Helios Dayspring, a cannabis grower who purchased the Old Town Market at 405 E. Clark St. in Orcutt last year. He hoped to sell cannabis there, but the center failed to make it into the final round of competition by one point.
On May 21, Sterne issued a tentative order upholding the county’s scoring methods for the center, which included a review of business operations and neighborhood compatibility.
At the same time, the judge ordered the county to release to the center the scoresheets and applications of all of the cannabis storefront applicants except Orcutt’s, and she scheduled another court hearing for July 23.
At that hearing, the Natural Healing Center will again allege that the county’s scoring was “arbitrary and capricious,” this time armed with examples from other applications, said Randy Fox, the center’s attorney. All the center needs, he said, is one more point.
“We’re saying we belong in the final group,” Fox said. “In my view, the county should have released all of the applications as soon as they were presented so the public knew who had applied; but they didn’t do that, so we had to go through the court process in order to get them. NHC is fortunate because they realized what was happening early, and they got their case before the judge.”
The county’s case, as stated in an April 16 court brief, is: “There is no factual or legal basis to re-score NHC’s application and award additional points.”
Protest in Los Alamos. Countywide, 22 teams applied for the right to open cannabis dispensaries in unincorporated areas, and eight of the losing applicants, including the Natural Healing Center and Cottonwood Roots in Los Alamos, sent in letters of protest after the county released the preliminary rankings in March, Heaton said.
Some requested copies of their rivals’ applications and scoresheets, she said; they were told that “withholding this information is in the public’s best interest” until after the final rankings were posted.
“None of the rankings changed between preliminary ranking and final,” Heaton said.
On April 30, the county announced the final rankings for five dispensary locations here. The top-ranked teams have until July 30 to apply for a zoning permit from county Planning and Development.
One team that filed a scoring protest earlier this year was Cottonwood Roots of Los Alamos, a group that boasted near-unanimous backing from local businesses and turned in 120 signatures on letters of support from business owners and residents. The county awarded a slightly higher overall score to Haven X LLC, a company with a chain of cannabis dispensaries in Southern California.
The Cottonwood Roots team filed Public Records Act requests with the county on April 2 and again on June 2, finally obtaining copies this week of their own final scoresheet and Haven’s scoresheet and application.
Austen Connella, the Cottonwood Roots team leader, a cannabis grower and a member of the Central Coast Cannabis Council, a trade association, said it was frustrating not to have received the documents earlier, during the 10-day appeals period, “when we had an opportunity to do something about it.”
“It just seems like Santa Barbara County decided to do a majority of the process behind closed doors,” he said. “Los Alamos is so small and close-knit, having local operators who are really in tune with the community seemed like the best fit to us.”
Adrienne Veillette, a Los Alamos resident and the team’s community liaison, said, “We’ve asked for transparency: I feel like these documents are the bare minimum. We’re still in the dark about why we scored what we did.”
The newly-released scoresheets show that Cottonwood Roots scored much higher than Haven on neighborhood compatibility and community involvement; but much lower on a site visit.
“That’s where the cards fall,” Heaton said. “There has to be a winner, and so there were no tie scores.”
Santa Claus Lane battle. The county held six “virtual” community workshops last July to consider the selection criteria for the neighborhood compatibility and business operations of future cannabis storefronts. In August, the county Board of Supervisors adopted the criteria.
Before the county ranked the cannabis storefront applicants, Heaton said, “There was a lot of opportunity for the public to weigh in. We posted the applicants’ names online with their addresses, separated by community plan area. They could look at a map online, and people could give general comments on why or why not a location would be compatible.”
Unlike the city of Santa Barbara, however, the county did not hold public hearings in which each applicant for a dispensary (in the city’s case, dispensaries and manufacturing and distribution centers) – presented his or her plans, answered questions from county staff, and heard from the public.
Now, on Santa Claus Lane, where one of the six county dispensaries is proposed, business owners are protesting what they view as a deal that was conducted “out of public view.” They want to know how the county determined the “neighborhood compatibility” of a dispensary next to Padaro Beach in the midst of burger joints, boutiques, surf shops and surf camps for kids.
Last year, citing parking congestion and safety concerns, the Morehart Land Co., owner of the Padaro Beach Grill, presented the county Board of Supervisors last year with 165 signatures on a petition opposing a cannabis storefront on Santa Claus Lane.
“Think of Santa with a joint in his mouth,” one resident wrote on the county’s interactive map.
And in a letter to the board last year, Steven Kent and Nancy Rikalo, longtime owners of the largest commercial building on the lane, asked, “Where would the influx of cannabis customers park? … We would literally be overwhelmed. It is just not even conceivable the chaos and congestion this would create.”
“The worst place.” Now, on behalf of Kent and Rikalo, Jana Zimmer, a consulting attorney and former Santa Barbara County deputy counsel, says she has filed three public records requests in an effort to find out how the county determined that Santa Claus Lane was an appropriate location for a cannabis storefront but Montecito, Summerland, Vandenberg Village and the Cuyama Valley were not.
The county reviewed two applications for cannabis storefronts on Santa Claus Lane.
Zimmer said she requested any documents showing that the county performed an analysis of the parking overflow or the potential impact of a dispensary on public beach access, given the competition for parking.
“This is probably the worst place on the South Coast they could put one,” Zimmer said. “We have been asking for documents. We haven’t gotten any that are relevant to how the determination was made. It was done completely out of the public view in an opaque process.
"There’s no indication that the county considered any of the reams of opposition that they have in their files," she added. "It’s just ludicrous.”
During public comment at a June 22 hearing on cannabis, Zimmer asked the Board of Supervisors to “rescind the site designation”: the supervisors did not respond.
In an interview, Heaton said it was not the board that selected Santa Claus Lane for a cannabis storefront. The cannabis industry, she said, “found what they thought to be the best site” within the larger area of Toro Canyon, Summerland and the western Carpinteria Valley, one of the six unincorporated communities chosen by the board for a cannabis dispensary.
Summerland’s commercial zone lies in close proximity to a school; no one applied for a cannabis storefront there, Heaton said. As for the traffic, parking and public beach access on Santa Claus Lane, she said, “Many of these concerns and issues will be looked at in the permit process.”
Melinda Burns volunteers as a freelance journalist in Santa Barbara as a community service; she offers her news reports to multiple local publications, at the same time, for free.
Images: Retail product (cincinnati.com); Artist's rendering of The Natural Healing Center's plans for a cannabis dispensary at the Old Town Market in Orcutt (Courtesy photo); Cottonwood Roots open house in Los Alamos in March (Jeffrey Bloom photo); Parking snarls on Santa Claus Lane (Courtesy photo); Ho, ho, ho (Depositphotos.com).