Marijuana licenses OK'd for 3 Royal Oak petitioners, despite pushback

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Royal Oak — Despite four lawsuits against the city, community opposition and questions about the selection process, officials approved special permits for three proposed marijuana businesses in a five-hour meeting that stretched into early Tuesday.

Gatsby Cannabis on Meijer Drive, Royal Treatment on East Harrison and Best Lyfe on Woodward won approval for licenses Monday night.

Before the commission vote, residents voiced opposition to the licenses, including one controversial proposal within 88 feet of a vocational school.

The Gatsby Cannabis Co. rendering of a proposed marihuana grow, processing, and retail facility at 5130 Meijer Drive in Royal Oak.

Former Mayor Dennis Cowan represents Gatsby Cannabis, which sought a special-use permit for a vacant former auto service building on Meijer Drive to grow, manufacture and run a sales facility. The City Commission approved the proposal 5-1, with Monica Hunt abstaining due to a possible conflict of interest. While commissioners were told they had the discretion to waive part of their city ordinance, Commissioner Melanie Macey voted against the Gatsby proposal, saying she was uncomfortable with dropping the school buffer zone from 1,000 feet to under 100 feet.

Commissioners complimented Gatsby on its overall proposal, one calling it a model for other applicants doing business with the city. They appeared impressed with the petitioner's vow to award $225,000 annually to local groups, starting with the neighboring Cummingston Park Conservatory operated by the Royal Oak Nature Society.

Cowan described the pledge as "unprecedented" in Royal Oak.

The Gatsby project until recently was opposed by Oakland Schools, the intermediate school district that operates a trade school 88 feet away. Under state law, marijuana operations are supposed to be at least 1,000 feet from school facilities, unless waived by local officials. Gatsby, through Cowan, successfully argued that the trade school is a non-conforming facility located in an industrial area and as such, is ineligible for such buffer consideration.

Former City Commissioner James Rasor represents Royal Treatment, which won unanimous approval for its proposal of a marijuana dispensary in an industrial=zoned area on East Harrison that borders residential neighborhoods. Rasor previously has described the proposal as a clean, "boutique" operation that will enhance the nearby residential neighborhood. He noted that it would be much more acceptable than other businesses that could legally set up shop at the location, “like a slaughterhouse.”

"This is not a high-volume operation," Rasor said. "It's more like a high-end jewelry store."

Royal Treatment rendering for proposed marijuana facility at 420 E. Harrison Avenue in Royal Oak.

Michael Thompson, president of the nearby Lawson Park Homeowners Association, said he and others have been rebuffed in efforts to have a public hearing prior to a vote on the licenses. That would have required the city to send out notices to nearby addresses of the Royal Treatment proposed site on East Harrison and provided 15 days to strategize against the plan.

After the Planning Commission recommended approval for Royal Treatment, Thompson said it's time to propose modifying the roadway to isolate the neighborhood from the planned dispensary and added traffic.

“We don’t believe we can get this project denied and have now switched to compromise and solution-based mindset,” Thompson, an architect, told The Detroit News before the meeting.

Several members of the homeowners group showed up Monday night to express concern about any increased traffic. Rasor said Royal Treatment will work with the city to address residents' traffic concerns.

Rasor and Royal Treatment owner Edward Mamou said the business would earmark $10,000 annually to charitable organizations in Royal Oak.

Michael Kessler is proposing a micro marijuana business on the west side of Woodward in a former mattress business and restaurant south of 14 Mile.

Kessler said the operation will be permitted to grow 150 plants, and manufacture and package them for sale at the location. Kessler has been involved in similar marijuana operations in Detroit, Bay City and Saginaw since 2015.

The commission approved Kessler's proposal with a 6-1 vote.

Ron Arnold, who lives in the Lawson Park area, said the Royal Treatment dispensary would result in additional “hundreds of motorists a day” and would affect the safety of pedestrians, the ability of the Fire Department to access the neighborhood and the “walkability” of the city.

Resident Tony Molaka said he worried about commercial traffic.

“I don’t want any business in my neighborhood,” he said. “Whether it’s a McDonald’s or marijuana.”

Others, like Bob Mollar said the Gatsby facility proposal was a good idea.

“Its in an industrial part of the city without residents next to it and there should be no traffic problems there,” he said.

The lawsuits have been filed by some of the 32 applicants who felt they were intentionally overlooked for consideration. Applicants argued that selected candidates received preferential treatment by the commission due to political favoritism. And larger, more experienced marijuana retailers were ignored, like Attitude Wellness, which is part of Lume Cannabis Co., according to the claims. 

“Lume Cannabis Co. is the state’s leading cannabis company with a proven track record of providing high-quality, safe and rigorously tested cannabis at affordable prices for Michigan patients and consumers,” said attorney Kevin Blair, who represents Attitude Wellness.

“Lumen has partnered with more than 30 local communities big and small to create jobs, investment and opportunities across Michigan,” Blair said. “That's why we were deeply disappointed by the City of Royal Oak’s secretive and flawed licensing process which appears to put politics and personal relationships over experience and results." 

Brian Etzel, an attorney representing Birmingham-based Quality Roots, which was not selected, said “to make up for their lack of experience and qualifications Gatsby and Royal Treatment each hired a former elected officials — former mayor Dennis Cowan and former City Commissioner James Rasor — as its respective representative and consultant for lobbying city officials.”

An Oakland Circuit judge denied requests for temporary restraining orders against the city but the lawsuits are pending.

City activists, such as the Royal Oakers for Accountability and Responsibility (ROAR) group, believe officials may be unduly influenced by Cowan and Rasor.

Mayor Michael Fournier and veteran Commissioner Sharlan Douglas sit on the city Planning Commission and the City Commission.

Both have found support, including campaign donations, endorsements and a fundraiser, from Cowan or Rasor. Such activities are legal and not uncommon but cause critics to complain of special-interest influence.

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