Tioga Green, the prospective cannabis retailer that’s given Lee Vining more than its fair share of controversy in the past few months, has finally been granted permission to operate by the Mono County Board of Supervisors.
The Board had delayed the final vote by a week to allow the applicants and opponents to either come to an agreement to modify the proposal, or bring back the same proposal.
The same proposal was ultimately brought back because no real compromise could be reached.
“We’ve attempted to sit down with community members to come up with solutions, and they haven’t provided solutions,” said Margie DeRose, co-owner of Tioga Green. “There are deep-rooted issues in the community that stem back decades, and it feels a little bit like we’re being put in the middle.”
The only changes in the approved proposal were a few extra conditions added by the Board that restrict the size and location of signage on the premises.
However, these restrictions didn’t seem to please either side. The Sheet spoke to applicant/owner Cory Zila, who said that he’s concerned that the reduction in signage will cause families with kids to visit Tioga Green unaware of the kind of business that it is.
On the other side, Wayne Beaver, a local business owner who’s spoken out in opposition to Tioga Green, responded with a blatant “no” when asked if he thought the signage restrictions would actually do anything to mitigate the problems he’s worried about.
The Board voted 4-1 to approve the proposal, with Supervisor Jennifer Halferty voting against–not because she’s opposed to Tioga Green, but because she didn’t agree with the extra restrictions that were put on the business, nor with the statement that these restrictions will mitigate negative impacts.
“I don’t have any data to tell me that [the size of] that sign has that kind of power … and I struggle with that statement,” Halferty said.
As shown in the photo at right, grading and rock work have begun on the property, activities that Community Development Department analyst Wendy Sugimura said are, in fact, allowed under the land-use permit Tioga Green has. Sugimura also said that Tioga Green is working with the County to obtain building permits for other improvements.
So what else happened during the past week while the parties were supposed to be negotiating?
Proponents of Tioga Green started their own petition to provide a contrast to the anti-Green petition presented to the Board last week, and obtained 139 signatures (87 of which were from Lee Vining community members). This makes the two petitions roughly equal in weight.
David Strelneck, a former Lee Vining resident who now lives in Maine, was asked by Supervisor Bob Gardner to help facilitate discussions between the two sides. Strelneck also spoke to other members of the community about the project, and reported his findings to the Board.
His findings: people want to collaborate and compromise more, and are “acting with integrity,” but were unable to provide specific areas for compromise in time for the board meeting. Strelneck also wrote a separate letter in opposition to Tioga Green on the grounds that it’s caused too much division, which caused Supervisor Halferty to take issue with his (informal) role as mediator between the two sides, a job that should be by definition impartial.
In a follow-up conversation with the Sheet, Strelneck emphasized that he’s just here to help his community get along. “The goal which is guiding [me], the goal which led [me] to agree to conduct a series of conversations and summarize the results for the Board, is one of the community engaging with each other and determining their own destiny,” he said.
Zila and his business partner Margie DeRose, who also questioned Strelneck’s motives during the board meeting, later said they were okay with the job Strelneck did in reaching out to the community.
In the past week, someone opposed to Tioga Green researched Cory Zila’s history, and came up with two encounters with law enforcement: a 2006 marijuana-related arrest and a 2017 DUI from the Mono County Sheriff’s department.
Although applicants for cannabis dispensaries in California cannot have had felony convictions or certain drug-related arrests within the past 10 years, neither of the incidents involving Zila prevented him from obtaining the permit, since the 2006 arrest is too old, and the 2017 DUI not severe enough, to invalidate the application.
However, community character is also a consideration in cannabis permitting, and opponents seized upon Zila’s character as a potential wedge and cited the influence his presence will have on Lee Vining.
“I got nothing against [the applicants] personally,” said Beaver. “All this dirt that’s being dug up, I went to them and told them I have nothing to do with that.”
It’s unknown who wrote an anonymous letter to the Board mentioning these arrests and calling into question Zila’s character.
In response to the marijuana offense, Zila said, “I’ve changed, I’m an adult now, I want to clarify that I’ve taken care of those things.” With regards to the DUI, he told the Sheet, “It happens to the best of us … that was a mistake.”
The opposition to Tioga Green “feels like a witch hunt,” he added.
As to be expected, the discussion of Tioga Green veered off-topic a couple of times; perhaps one of the more interesting parts of the meeting was near the end of public comment, when Chris Lizza addressed Supervisor Fred Stump, calling him out for his “disregard of RPACs,” the committees that advise the County on local issues.
Lizza, a member of the Mono Basin RPAC, was referencing Stump’s comments at the previous Board meeting, when Stump explained that he chooses to not have RPACs in his district because he believes they are often dominated by a few members who aren’t responsive to the public as a whole, and suggested that the Mono Basin RPAC may not have represented its citizens adequately when the Mono County cannabis regulations were developed, for the same reason.
Citizens should be able to come to a meeting, or at least write a letter to the RPAC to have their voice heard, said Lizza, and “if you don’t do any of those things, don’t complain.”
Stump responded that Lizza was misrepresenting his opinions, and called it “regrettable” that Lizza didn’t contact him personally after last week’s meeting to talk about RPACs, if Lizza disagreed with what he said at that time.
According to Strelneck, this argument about the viability and fairness of RPACs is one of several potentially important conversations that the controversy surrounding Tioga Green has started, and one that will continue even though the local approval process is over.
People on both sides of the issue, including Zila and DeRose, indicated a willingness to get together for a picnic and further these discussions, independent of the issue of cannabis and with the goal of getting to know and understand each other better.
Moving forward, Tioga Green still must obtain a state license before it can begin selling cannabis, but this process involves no further public comment. There is no estimated timeline for how long it will take to get this state license, nor is approval completely guaranteed. For now, though, Lee Vining stands to join the pot-shop club with Mammoth Lakes, June Lake, and many others throughout the state.