Guest Editorial: Stirring The Pot In Tempe

By The Happy Wanderer

Tempe is widely considered the Valley’s most progressive city. Don’t take our word for it. A simple Google search of the terms “Tempe” and “progressive city” yields an astonishing 4,320 results in 0.62 seconds.

Knowing how open-minded it is, we were puzzled when we heard that certain Tempe officials expressed intransigence and closed-mindedness towards a potential medical marijuana dispensary in south Tempe’s Warner Road Corridor.

Here’s a brief rundown of the facts. In late 2015, the city issued a use acceptance letter for Natural Herb Remedies to operate a medical marijuana dispensary in a office suite located at 8611 South Priest Drive. For whatever reason, the dispensary authorized by that approval was never opened. As a result, the use acceptance decision issued by Tempe’s Community Development Department expired based on the conditions of approval in the letter.

Less than two years later a new property owner, PARC Dispensary stepped up and applied to confirm that the vacant site could still be used for a dispensary. It argued that it was a successor in interest and the 2015 approval could be used by it as a subsequent owner.

In the two years since the Natural Herb Remedies’ use permit was approved, Tempe amended its medical marijuana zoning ordinance and increased separation requirements for a medical marijuana dispensary from a child care facility and residential uses. Purportedly, the site was no longer compliant with these new requirements because it was now located too close to both under the new standards of the revised ordinance.

PARC Dispensary’s owner has politely sought a variance from these separation requirements but has been denied one at both the initial zoning officer hearing and the subsequent appeal to the Tempe Board of Adjustment. We say “politely’ because the new applicant has the clear legal right to proceed. And the city knows it. And so do proponents of Arizona’s landmark Proposition 207, designed to protect private property rights. Backers are chomping at the bit to sue Tempe for damages, something that won’t be difficult to achieve.

The common thread with these denials? Tempe Planning & Zoning Coordinator Steve Abrahamson and Tempe Community Development Deputy Director Ryan Levesque.

Steve the Stickler and Ryan the Renegade have been at every hearing, tag teaming with nitpicky explanations for why the variance shouldn’t be granted. They’ve given a plethora of justifications for all that’s wrong with the dispensary site, using zoning jargon that confuses even the most knowledgeable land use professional. In the meantime, a business that could generate substantial annual tax revenue for Tempe, but most importantly, help make life easier for Tempe patients counting on medical marijuana has sat empty, collecting dust.

In the wake of all these roadblocks, PARC and its fans are mobilizing. They’re getting ready to put on a stronger full-court press than a Bobby Hurley-coached basketball team. We understand that a public records request has already been submitted to the city to uncover Abrahamson and Levesque’s communications both internally with Tempe officials and with any interested external parties on the matter. Who knows what’s next?  Will PARC’s owner file a Prop. 207 claim against Tempe for a loss of private property rights? That loud noise you just heard is the collective groan from city lawyers at the Harry E. Mitchell Government Center.

It’s not too late for Tempe, however. There’s still time to prevent a legal and public relations debacle by showing off some of that forward-thinking attitude that it has become famous for and find a way to make this dispensary site work. After all, Tempe doing gymnastics to prevent the very popular medical marijuana program in its midst is a little like San Diego bureaucrats trying to stop people from enjoying the beach. Goofy footing is a term used to describe surfers who don’t follow the norm and use uncommon stances to ride the waves. And it’s a good description of Abrahamson and Levesque, who are out of step with Tempe voters and the law.