San Luis Obispo County has been slapped with a lawsuit by the owners of Ethnobotanica claiming the Board of Supervisors abused its powers when the body denied the company a permit to open a brick-and-mortar medical marijuana dispensary in Nipomo last year.
The 18-page lawsuit filed Jan. 4 contends the "county's denial of the (minor use permit) was an abuse of discretion because the county’s findings in support of the denial were not supported by substantial or credible evidence and the county failed to proceed in the manner required by law."
A split Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 in early November 2015 to uphold an appeal filed by Nipomo resident James Bigelow and reverse its Planning Commission's decision to approve a planned storefront dispensary at 2122 Hutton Road.
The lawsuit seeks to have the county's decision to deny the permit overturned, as well as recover attorney fees and court costs.
The dispensary was proposed by Ethnobotanica, which has operated mobile dispensary services legally in the county for more than six years.
Supervisors Adam Hill and Bruce Gibson dissented, both citing concerns that denying the project violated the county's land-use ordinance allowing brick-and-mortar medical marijuana dispensaries to be established if certain guidelines are met.
At the time, Hill said he believed the denial would lead to the county being sued.
"We don't have the land-use (regulations) to turn this down," Hill said at that November supervisors meeting, where local law enforcement officials spoke about increased crime and safety concerns with dispensaries.
Santa Maria's Mayor Alice Patino and Police Chief Ralph Martin also spoke at the November hearing and urged the supervisors to uphold Bigelow's appeal of the dispensary planned for operation near the Highway 101 and Highway 166 interchange just north of the Santa Maria River Bridge.
Both spoke of increased crime they believed the dispensary would bring to Santa Maria if it were allowed to open.
Baback Naficy, Ethnobotanica's attorney, argues in the lawsuit the three supervisors who upheld the appeal did so based on their personal beliefs about medical marijuana and also relied on testimony that was vague and unsupported by substantial evidence.
"The Board of Supervisors specifically cited the testimony of the mayor of Santa Maria and the project’s neighbors, including a petition signed by 36 residents of Nipomo, who opposed the project based on generalized and unsubstantiated 'public safety and other grounds,'" Naficy wrote.
"The three ... supervisors who voted to deny the MUP vehemently opposed the project because of a personal bias against medical marijuana," he continued. "These individuals deliberately relied on statements by public and law enforcement officials that were based not on credible evidence but on sheer speculation.
Supervisors Lynn Compton, Frank Mecham and Debbie Arnold voted to uphold the appeal.
County ordinance allows the establishment of dispensaries in unincorporated areas but specifies the facilities must be located 1,000 feet from public schools, playgrounds, parks, youth and recreation centers and libraries.
Ethnobotanica's plans for the Nipomo site met all the requirements.
"The county’s harsh and unequal treatment of dispensaries is clearly intentional and is not based on any rational or legitimate basis," Naficy wrote.
County counsel has only recently been served with the lawsuit and declined to comment.
April Charlton covers South San Luis Obispo County for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow her on Twitter@WordsDawn.
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