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The City of Turlock’s first retail cannabis dispensary was
approved unanimously by the Planning Commission Thursday night, despite
opposition from concerned parents and wary neighbors.

Fire House Dispensary is one of four retail locations that
will be allowed in Turlock as part of its cannabis pilot program, which saw the
Turlock City Council reverse its ban on marijuana operations when the program
was approved last May. The program allows for the four dispensaries and an
unlimited number of cannabis cultivation, manufacturing, testing and
distribution sites. Over 30 candidates applied to operate dispensaries in town,
with City staff ranking each and selecting their top four. Fire House
Dispensary was ranked No. 1 by the City, and the Planning Commission at their
Thursday meeting approved a Conditional Use Permit for the business to operate at
1601 W. Main St. in the former Waffle Shop location — just 945 feet down the
road from Osborn Two-Way Immersion Academy, much to the ire of Turlock Unified
School District and the parents of elementary students who attend the school.

Fire House owner Devin Stetler operates dispensaries in five
other Central Valley cities, including Modesto, Merced, Stockton, Ceres and
Riverbank, and assured both the Planning Commission and those in attendance at
Thursday’s meeting that the location right off Highway 99 was a suitable
option.

“I’ve been through the process nearly a dozen times now and
we’ve seen there’s always a concern right before these dispensaries are about
to open. It’s a natural part of this process,” Stetler said, and mentioned his
properties in other towns. “Each of these cities felt the same doubts and
concerns that some of the community in Turlock is feeling here.”

Parents, business owners and even one student stood before
the Planning Commission during public comment to share their fears about a
dispensary operating on West Main Street. Evergreen Packaging facility manager
Edward Burton, whose business sits on the corner adjacent to the soon-to-be
Fire House location, stated that he already deals with the local transient
population that’s attracted to nearby services and doesn’t want the dispensary
serving as a “temptation” for his workers.

TUSD Board member Mary Jackson, who also has a daughter in
fifth grade at Osborn, worried about the possibility of potential robberies at
the site that could send the campus into a lockdown.

“You can’t take away the risk, so what I’m asking for is
just put it somewhere else,” Jackson said. “You need to understand that Osborn
is a different type of school. If you’ve never been on that campus, you don’t
know what I’m talking about. People respect it, it doesn’t get graffitied and
people don’t have the issues they do at other schools. The west side does not
need this.”

TUSD Superintendent Dana Trevethan submitted a letter to the
City in October 2019 asking that the then-proposed Fire House location not be
approved, adding it was the first time she had ever sought support from the
Council during her 30-year tenure with the school district. A dispensary in
such close proximity to a TUSD campus would send the opposite message that
TUSD’s annual drug-free campaigns strive to promote, she argued.

“With the proposed location of the West Main dispensary,
roughly 1,000 students could potentially be near or about this proposed
dispensary location five days a week traveling to and from school,” Trevethan
wrote. “At a minimum, the presence of this dispensary so near to our students’
daily travels sends a contradictory message regarding what TUSD advocates — 1)
safe routes to and from school that mean more than the presence of sidewalks
and strategic bus stops, and 2) drug-free campuses that promote healthy choices
and lifestyles.”

Westside Ministries founder JoLynn DiGrazia took issue with
TUSD’s request.

“Not one of the board trustees lives in the neighborhood.
Not one of the people in the front office live in our neighborhood. For them
(and all the parents who bring their children to our neighborhood school who
live outside our neighborhood) to try to speak for our WESTSIDE community is a
travesty,” DiGrazia wrote to the City. “As a parent on the westside I will say
that the Waffle House has never looked as clean and the landscaping is well
taken care of. That makes our neighborhood look great. Listen to the
homeowners…not those who drive their kids across town so their children can
learn Spanish.”

Many in opposition to Fire House stated they would rather
see the dispensary in an industrial zone, rather than near a retail corridor.
Stetler pointed out that there are 24 dispensaries located on major retail
corridors throughout Stanislaus County, and cities like Riverbank have found
the businesses to be a welcome addition.

“We’ve learned from this experience that locating these
businesses in industrial zones actually cause concern. There’s less security,
less parking, less lighting and the existing businesses don’t want the retail
traffic through there that it brings,” Stetler said. “The entire cannabis
program suffers ultimately because there’s far less income to the City.”

Stetler said his five dispensaries are expected to give back
$4.2 million in public benefit fees this year, not including projected funds
for Turlock. Fire House will give 5.25 percent of its gross receipts to Turlock
as a public benefit fee monthly, with .25 percent going toward drug prevention
and youth programs.

If a student were to attempt to enter Fire House, they
wouldn’t make it far. As part of the dispensary’s Conditional Use Permit, armed
security guards will flank each exterior access door, high-definition video
cameras will be in place, high-intensity lighting installed on the premises will
keep things visible and customers can only enter the cannabis sales floor after
showing their ID to a clerk, who will then “buzz” them in through a locked
door.

Stetler’s dispensaries in both Riverbank and Modesto share
parking lots with youth-related businesses, including a karate studio and the
Boys & Girls Club of Stanislaus County.

“What really speaks volumes is that we’re on a retail
corridor in every city we operate — most in sensitive areas — and the results
have been successful to the point that mayors and council members proudly
invite dignitaries from other cities for tours of our facility to show them
off,” Stetler said. “This isn’t a right for us to do business, this is our
opportunity to show you how good this is for the community.”

In a letter of recommendation, Riverbank Mayor Richard
O’Brien shared his experience with the Flavors dispensary in his city.

“While many of the public expressed concerns of major crime
increases around the area, traffic control issues, supply to youth, vagrancy
and a decrease in property values, Flavors opened with little notice nor
fanfare,” O’Brien wrote. “We have also noticed that the area appearance has
greatly improved, leading us to look at future dispensaries be placed in areas
of needed improvement.”

The Planning Commission and City staff received numerous
other letters both advocating for and opposing the Fire House location. When
voting, however, the Planning Commission determined that 1601 W. Main St.,
located across Tully Road from the cemetery, was not in the direct walking path
of students and met criteria set forth by the City Council for a dispensary
operating under the cannabis pilot program.

“This is a very emotional issue and we have to stay in our
lane. Our job is to make sure that this is a good place for this business;
we’re not here to decide if this is a good business to have in Turlock,”
Planning Commission Chair Jim Reape said.

Reape stated that he observed the proposed location before
school and didn’t see any students walking past it.

“I don’t know where else in Turlock outside of an industrial
area that would have fewer children than this…I don’t know if there’s really a
better spot.”

After the unanimous vote, Fire House Dispensary has now
received approval to operate under a Conditional Use Permit within the City of
Turlock at 1601 W. Main St. The permit will not go before the City Council for
approval unless the Planning Commission’s decision is appealed. The public has
10 days from Thursday night’s meeting to appeal and can do so by visiting the
City Clerk’s office at 156 S. Broadway, Ste. 230, or by calling 209-668-5540
for more information. 

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