In May, Tioga Green, a cannabis retailer hoping to set up shop at the south end of Lee Vining, obtained land-use approval from the Mono County Planning Commission for its proposed shop in a long-vacant stand-alone building at the bend between the Tioga Road and the entrance to town.
The next hurdle, obtaining approval to operate from the Board of Supervisors, was supposed to occur at the July 9 board meeting.
Instead, after hearing concerns from both sides, and seeing the polarization that Tioga Green has caused in Lee Vining, the Board surprised both sides by asking them to collaborate and compromise—and challenging them to come up with a modified proposal for Tioga Green by next week’s meeting.
The owner and applicant is Cory Zila, a Mono County resident with experience in the cannabis business, who bought the property from previous owner Winston Hebert in February.
Hebert’s plans for a drive-thru eatery on the same property, nicknamed ‘the talking taco’, had stalled.
Zila saw the potential for a cannabis store in a location considered to be unfeasible for any other kind of business, and hopes to create several jobs (some year-round, some seasonal) for locals at a starting wage of $15 an hour.
Proponents argue that Tioga Green is the best possible location for a cannabis retailer—adequately distant from both Lee Vining schools, and far enough out of town so as to not affect traffic or parking. And it has the potential to bring significant economic activity to the town, finally putting to use a building that’s sat empty since it was built. In fact, by improving the land and building, Tioga Green could bring aesthetic value in addition to the dollars spent there. The stigma surrounding cannabis is overblown, they said, and the security systems and procedures that the owners plan to use will prevent crime and underage use. After all, as one resident pointed out, alcoholic beverages and sharp knives are both being sold much closer to schools in Lee Vining, under lesser security—it’s just the perception of cannabis that creates the opposition.
This time around, rather than focusing on the cons of cannabis use in general, opponents focused on Tioga Green’s location. Although it’s well outside of the 600-foot radius from schools that the Mono Basin RPAC requires of cannabis dispensaries, it’s still too close, they argued, and cannabis products could end up in the hands of kids. Also, being right outside of town has a downside. “It’s the first thing that you see when you come into Lee Vining, and it’s the last thing that you see when you leave Lee Vining,” said Stephanie Banta, speaking against the proposal. Her point: in a town reliant on tourism, image matters, and does a cannabis dispensary create the image that Lee Vining wants?
Lee Vining business owner Wayne Beaver suggested that Tioga Green should really be located in a proposed industrial park near Lee Vining Airport, but this industrial park doesn’t exist, nor are there any plans to build it in the future.
The discussion of location started to go down a rabbit hole of possibilities when the Tioga Inn development at the Mobil Mart (an unrelated project) was brought up. The concern was that families might end up living there, and their kids might end up walking to school past Tioga Green. On the other hand, it’s a long walk, and sidewalks are poorly developed and unsafe, so the school should have to provide bus transportation. Then again, if more people started living on the outskirts of Lee Vining, Caltrans might start improving the sidewalks, and then …
Anyway, according to County staff, the Tioga Green proposal is in compliance with all regulations, save a minor conflict with state signage regulations that nobody knew existed until Assistant County Counsel Christy Milovich broughtit up at the meeting. The staff recommendation was to approve the application, but it quickly became clear that several board members had other ideas.
One of the criteria for approval of cannabis dispensaries in Mono County is that it the development be in the best interests of the community. Because of this requirement, the Board has a lot of discretion as to whether to approve Tioga Green or not. While supervisors Jennifer Halferty and Stacy Corless wanted to avoid putting unnecessary burdens on the applicants, Bob Gardner and Fred Stump were both hesitant to approve the permits due to the apparent division Tioga Green has created in the community.
Stump referenced a petition opposing Tioga Green that had approximately 75 signatures from Lee Vining residents (out of 222 total residents). “This is the first cannabis proposal that there’s been this level of opposition,” he said, emphasizing that to him, the 9 letters the County has received in support of the Tioga Green proposal don’t match the sheer number of people who appear to be opposed.
*Ed. note: Dave Levy, who attended the Board meeting, said the pro/con breakdown of citizens at Tuesday’s meeting was 9-2 by his count. Apparently, an unverified petition is more impactful to Fred Stump than those persons actually taking the time to attend a meeting.
There was no petition presented in favor of Tioga Green (to be fair, Tioga Green probably didn’t realize that a petition contest was part of the approval process), and Stump hinted that he would like to see how many signatures a pro-green petition could get before approving the application.
In the 2016 election, Mono Basin voters approved recreational cannabis legalization by a wide 30% margin, but nobody really knows what margin supports or opposes this specific business.
Ultimately, rather than voting on the issue, the Board (at Gardner’s suggestion) gave the two sides a week to either work together to come up with a modified, less controversial proposal for the Board to vote on next Tuesday, or bring back the same one if they can’t agree. Modifications could be made to signage and hours, or Tioga Green could try to please the other side by increasing their commitment to education, safety, and community contribution.
The Sheet spoke to Cory Zila Thursday. He said he approached Mr. Beaver upon hearing Gardner’s directive but was told in no uncertain terms, “You’re not going to change my mind. There’s nothing to talk about.”
It remains to be seen whether this compromise will actually happen; Stephanie Banta was concerned that an impartial volunteer would be needed to mediate any meeting between the two sides, which illustrates the polarization and animosity this issue has created. We’ll update you next week on the result of the negotiations and the Board’s final decision.