Following a hearing last week Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Katherine Cooper refused to block about half a dozen zoning verification letters the town issued to medical marijuana dispensary applicants.
Nature’s Healing Center, Inc. asked the court to rule that its application had the only valid zoning verification and the town had improperly issued clearance to the other applicants.
A lottery was scheduled yesterday, Aug. 7, by the State Department of Health Services to award the dispensary licenses for applicants across the state, including Fountain Hills.
Only one license was to be granted within the town.
The challenge from Nature’s Healing stems from a church located within 500 feet of all but a couple of lots in the area of Colony, Enterprise and Panorama drives where the dispensary will be permitted.
Paul A. Conant, the attorney representing Nature’s Healing Center, argued that the town provided the zoning verification to other applicants because staff incorrectly believed Universal Life Church had left the building at 16929 E. Enterprise Drive.
The church is apparently operating with a month-to-month lease after its original agreement expired in early May.
In her ruling Cooper stated, “Judicial intervention in the town’s zoning decisions is subject to an abuse of discretion standard. The court is precluded from invalidating the zoning verification letters issued to defendants absent an ‘abuse of discretion, excessive use of power, error of law, lack of good faith or an unreasonable or irrational act.’”
Cooper said based on testimony from town Senior Planner and Zoning Administrator Bob Rodgers, it was the town’s belief and understanding that there would be no church or place of worship within 500 feet of the property the verifications were issued for.
Rodgers said it was the town’s understanding that when the lease expired on May 8, Universal Life Church would no longer be operating at the Enterprise location.
“Based on the evidence presented, the court finds that the town did not abuse its discretion,” Cooper said. “Given the information it had at the time it acted reasonably in approving the defendant’s applications.”
At the opening of the hearing on July 31, Cooper stated she wanted to focus on the town’s actions regarding the issuance of the zoning verification and the activity surrounding the church.
She refused to hear testimony defense attorneys wanted to introduce indicating the church was a sham to protect the Nature’s Healing Center site.

Background
After the medical marijuana law was approved by Arizona voters in 2010 jurisdictions across the state went to work preparing to implement the law.
The Town of Fountain Hills addressed the zoning criteria it would have during 2011.
The council approved regulations that limited the location to the C-3 zoning district with minimum distance requirements from various other types of uses such as parks, schools, etc. included a 500-foot restriction from a church or place of worship.
At the time the zoning ordinance was amended North Chapel Church was operating at the Enterprise Drive building, limiting the access to property in the zoning district, but there were one or two acceptable lots.
Early this year North Chapel relocated to a site on Saguaro Boulevard, which would have opened up numerous other properties for medical marijuana dispensary consideration.
At about the time North Chapel was moving out a different church, Universal Life Church, leased space in the same building, meaning there was no change in the requirements.
Universal Life presented a lease to the Town of Fountain Hills indicating its lease would expire in early May. This was within weeks of the deadline for potential dispensary operators to get their application in to the state for the Aug. 7 lottery.
On May 2, Town Manager Ken Buchanan sent a memo to Rodgers and Development Services Director Paul Mood.
“You have direction to proceed with zoning clearance reference to the application for a medical marijuana dispensary,” the memo states.
“The issue, as it relates to the facility’s location to the Universal Church site, rendered the application non-compliant.
“To the best of our knowledge the lease is set to expire on May 8, 2012. Please provide the applicant, or any other applicant in the general location, the appropriate documentation indicating zoning clearance.”

Universal Life
Rev. Allan Sobol, pastor for Universal Life Church Fountain Hills, has a considerable history of involvement in the medical marijuana industry, but insists he has no ties or any knowledge of dispensary applications within Fountain Hills.
Sobol has operated a marijuana club and owns a consulting group for those seeking medical marijuana licenses, although he testified last week he does not have a client in Fountain Hills.
When asked by an attorney whether he is offended by those who refer to him as the “Godfather of Pot” he said he does not find that to be a derisive reference.
Sobol said he gets to Fountain Hills every couple of weeks and at this time the get-togethers with a handful of Universal Life parishioners are more work parties than services.
“It is difficult to get a church off the ground with no money,” Sobol said. “It is going very slowly.”
Sobol made these comments in way of explanation for why it appears that the suites the church is leasing appear to have no activity occurring.
He also said the monthly rent is being paid by a parishioner he declined to identify.
Sobol was asked, based on his involvement with the medical marijuana movement, why he would object to a dispensary within 500 feet of his church.
“What difference would it make if a dispensary opened within 500 feet of the church?” attorney Jeffery Kaufman asked.
“It would be prejudicial to the church,” Sobol answered. “The rules say it has to be more than 500 feet.”

Dispensaries
Those dispensaries that win “the lottery” Tuesday will have less than a year to build out their facilities and obtain proper licensing from the state and their cities or towns.
Under Arizona’s law, there is no limit to the amount of marijuana a dispensary can grow. Patients can get up to two and a half ounces of medical marijuana every two weeks.
More than 29,000 people have permission from the state health department to smoke, eat or otherwise ingest medical marijuana to ease their ailments.
Statewide, some 46 percent of cardholders were between the ages of 18 and 40, with 73 percent statewide being males.
Eighty-nine percent of them listed “chronic pain” as their debilitating ailment.
As of June 30, some 128 Fountain Hills residents had obtained permission to take medical marijuana.

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