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Cannabis Business Wins Permit Despite Nearby Church

A sign reserving a parking spot for Vista Prime Management is seen in front o...

Photo by Andrew Bowen

Above: A sign reserving a parking spot for Vista Prime Management is seen in front of the business's Kearny Mesa office, Nov. 20, 2018.

UPDATE: 3 p.m., Nov. 21, 2018

A San Diego hearing officer granted Vista Prime Management its conditional use permit after a hearing Wednesday morning. Opponents have 10 business days to appeal the decision to the Planning Commission.

Read original story below:

One of San Diego's most established cannabis manufacturing and distribution companies is at risk of losing its city permit because of a nearby church that, until recently, was unpermitted. The case underscores the challenges San Diego has faced in legalizing and permitting an industry that long existed in the shadows.

Vista Prime Management is seeking a conditional use permit to use its rented Kearny Mesa office space to manufacture cannabis-infused products and distribute them to retailers. The company has been operating all year with temporary state and local permission.

Kairos Christian Church is located in the same office park, which is zoned "light industrial." According to a report written by city staffers, the church had been operating in the space without the proper building use permit.

City staffers initially recommended Vista Prime's application for a conditional use permit be denied, on the grounds that the city's municipal code requires a 1,000-foot separation between marijuana production facilities and churches. The staff report says the permitting issue was resolved and the city had issued a "change of use construction permit."

But city spokesman Scott Robinson said Tuesday the church was still not meeting the city's parking standards, and that staffers would be changing their recommendation from "deny" to "approve." Robinson said despite the church's proximity, staffers had never advised Vista Prime to seek relocation.

RELATED: Inside San Diego's Budding Cannabis Supply Chain

The permit application is scheduled to go before a hearing officer on Wednesday morning. The hearing officer's decision can be appealed to the city's Planning Commission, which has final say.

Peter Yoon, the senior pastor at Kairos Christian Church, declined to comment on the case.

Gina Austin, the attorney representing Vista Prime, said that since marijuana production facilities are closed to the public, many neighbors or passersby are unaware they exist. She said she believed both her client and the church were struggling to continue their operations under the city's land use rules.

"We hope ultimately everybody can get what they need to operate," she said. "There's absolutely no desire to kick anybody out or make anything difficult for anybody."

The San Diego City Council last year passed an ordinance that allowed up to 40 conditional use permits for marijuana production facilities. It allowed them only on industrial-zoned lands, and established the 1,000-foot separation from churches, schools, parks and other "sensitive uses." Local permits are one of the first steps toward getting a license from state regulators.

RELATED: Marijuana Businesses Are Legal — But Darn Near Impossible To Open In San Diego

Vista Prime was among a handful of so-called "supply chain" businesses that were granted a two-year grace period to comply with the new land use regulations because they held a business tax certificate from the city.

At the time that was the highest level of legal recognition the city had offered those businesses, which for years had existed in a legal gray area. San Diego's first ordinance setting the ground rules for cannabis retail, which passed in 2014, failed to address where the drug would come from.

The cannabis retail regulations also led to confusion over what constitutes a park. The city has denied permits to people seeking to open dispensaries within 1,000 feet of designated open space or habitat, even though those areas have no public access. The council ultimately refined the definition of a park last year to avoid such confusion.

Austin said despite the confusion around her client's permit application, she thought the city was doing a good job of implementing the council's wishes and processing permit applications for marijuana production facilities.

"I think overall things are running pretty smoothly," she said.

A San Diego cannabis manufacturing and distribution company is at risk of losing its city permit because of a nearby church that, until recently, was unpermitted.

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