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Mayor bows to pressure on pot shop locations

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

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(AP file photo/Richard Vogel)

Following pushback from the cannabis industry, Mayor Tim Keller has reconsidered a zoning proposal that would have heavily restricted where the legalized recreational marijuana market could operate in Albuquerque.

Keller’s initial proposal – released last month – would have essentially blocked new shops from opening in Nob Hill and large swaths of Downtown, and limited opportunities in mixed-use zones.

But administration officials said Wednesday that was merely an opening salvo meant to spark discussion, and they are now pursuing slightly less restrictive regulations.

Mike Puelle, Keller’s chief of staff, said the original proposal was based largely on other communities around the U.S. that have already legalized recreational marijuana and the frameworks they have instituted. Puelle said Albuquerque officials wanted New Mexico’s largest city to eventually look more like Durango, Colorado, than like the small New Mexico border city of Trinidad, Colorado, which has a notably heavy concentration of marijuana dispensaries.

But the Keller administration’s first attempt to define local regulations would have severely limited opportunities for new marijuana retail in certain high-traffic shopping areas. A newer proposal would open up the possibilities, Puelle said.

“Maybe the initial proposal’s footprint was not where we thought it would be,” Puelle said in a meeting with Journal editors and reporters.

Officials said the proposal was somewhat rushed because the city has only one opportunity per year to update its zoning code, and the process was already underway when state lawmakers in April voted to legalize recreational cannabis. They said they have been and remain open to feedback.

Response to the proposed changes appears to be mixed. City Councilor Pat Davis is calling it a “step in the right direction” but at least one industry representative remains unsatisfied.

“Anywhere where you are willing to put a Starbucks, you should be able to put a dispensary,” said Ben Lewinger, executive director of the New Mexico Cannabis Chamber of Commerce. “Even with the city’s adjustments, it seems like we’re moving backwards in the stigmatization of cannabis.”

Keller’s original proposal – dated May 12 – would have prohibited cannabis dispensaries in “main street” areas. Albuquerque has a comprehensive zoning ordinance called the Integrated Development Ordinance that designates several corridors as “main street” areas, which are corridors that expand 660 feet outside of some prominent Albuquerque streets. That’s the distance of about two football fields.

The Central Avenue corridor, the city’s largest designated main street area, extends from Wyoming to Coors and includes Nob Hill, Downtown and the university area. Other main street corridors include portions of Fourth Street, Broadway, San Pedro and Bridge.

Keller’s earlier proposal also would have stopped new cannabis retailers from locating within 300 feet of residential lots in any mixed-use zone.

Those regulations would be in addition to restrictions the state already has set that prohibit shops within 300 feet of schools and day care centers.

But Keller’s refined proposal has eliminated the 660-foot buffer around main streets. While it would still preclude new pot shops fronting most parts of Central Avenue, it opens up opportunities in the immediate vicinity. It would also allow dispensaries as a “conditional” use near residential in mixed-use zones, which means they would be subject to a public hearing.

Administration officials noted that none of the new regulations – which would still have to pass the City Council – would apply to existing medical cannabis dispensaries, including those already on Central. They will be grandfathered in even if they shift to a recreational marijuana model, according to a planning official.

Davis said Keller’s willingness to back off from a complete prohibition of dispensaries in main street corridors indicates that his administration is listening to the concerns of cannabis industry leaders.

“I think it’s a step in the right direction and I think the cannabis industry will see it as a step in the right direction,” he said.

But Lewinger said prohibiting dispensaries on Central Avenue makes no sense from a policy perspective.

“We already have dispensaries on Central,” he said. “What’s the point?”

The city’s annual zoning ordinance update is currently pending before the City Council. Keller’s new cannabis proposal cannot advance without a city councilor agreeing to sponsor it, which his team is working to find.

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