The two Riverside County supervisors who sit on the county’s Ad Hoc Commercial Cannabis Committee will ask their colleagues on Tuesday to support an expansion of the committee’s role in identifying ways to improve the county’s regulatory process, now in place for almost a year.

Supervisors Jeff Hewitt and Karen Spiegel were appointed to the committee in February and have held two meetings with staff from the Transportation & Land Management Agency to gauge the highs and lows of the Board of Supervisors’ comprehensive cannabis regulatory framework, approved last fall.

The licensing criteria is spelled out in policy B-9, as well as Ordinance No. 671, both of which list the steps which commercial marijuana cultivators and retailers must go through to qualify for conditional-use permits and receive consideration for development agreements with the county to operate in unincorporated communities.

Hewitt and Spiegel are seeking to elevate their joint position to recommend modifications to the regulatory apparatus.

“Providing an opportunity for board members to review the ordinance and implementation process together will help identify opportunities for further refinement of our process moving forward, in order to protect residents, property owners and businesses in Riverside County, and to provide opportunities for commercial cannabis businesses to successfully participate in our regulatory program,” according to a statement posted to the board’s policy agenda.

Hewitt and Spiegel alluded to the need for the committee to take a central role in vetting potential commercial operations before their permit applications are presented to the county Planning Commission or the board for final review.

According to the committee, during the application window that closed in April, 119 prospects submitted applications for permits. The board has not signed off on a single permit — which also requires state authorization — this year. However, a proposed storefront operation in the 200 block of Iowa Avenue in Highgrove was unanimously approved by planning commissioners last month, and that proposed permit is slated to go before the board for a hearing in the coming weeks.

The board tentatively made 50 permits and development agreements available to cultivators and 19 permits available to retailers in 2019.

Conditional use permits each have a 10-year life span and cost $6,000 up front.

The committee said that further work is needed to refine the locations where cannabis retail outlets and commercial grows can be established. The board limited cultivation and retail operations to specific areas zoned as residential-agricultural (R-A), residential-rural (R-R) and controlled development (W-2). They encompass areas such as the Anza Valley, Sage and unincorporated Winchester.

Complaints about the public benefit scoring system included in the regulatory system were among the issues tackled by the committee, and neither Hewitt or Spiegel supported near-term changes to the scoring criteria, under which prospective cannabis growers and retailers who commit to making infrastructure and other improvements to places where they intend to set up shop receive credits on their permit applications, potentially moving them to the head of the line in vetting by county officials.

Hewitt and Supervisor Manuel Perez both expressed displeasure with the idea when it was first floated, complaining that it put micro-businesses and other small-level operators at a disadvantage when competing against large-scale enterprises with bigger budgets.

The committee stated additional time should be spent refining the scoring procedures, with an eye to new “social equity” qualifiers that might “give preferential treatment to those applicants (who) have former marijuana criminal convictions, have a competitive economic disadvantage in submitting applications through the standard planning development review process, those who promote local hiring or investment in disadvantaged communities, or face other social or economic barriers to entry into the legal, regulated market-place.”

Executive Office staff estimated in February that first- and second-year costs to the county for processing permits, carrying out on-site inspections and law enforcement details will total about $3.15 million.

To recoup expenses, “public benefit fees” will be charged, based on the size of each operation.

In the case of an indoor cultivator using between 2,500 and 5,000 square feet, the fee would run $4.50 per square foot. A dispensary operator using 2,500 square feet or less would owe the county $16 per square foot. A manufacturer of cannabis products with more than 3,000 square feet dedicated to the business would be required to pay $4.50 per square foot.

The fees will be collected annually, separate from sales tax receipts.

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