We recently discussed the California Environmental Quality Act as a limitation on local zoning authority through environmental regulation. Another important limitation on local authority when it comes to cannabis ordinances is spot zoning, which is the act of singling out specific parcels of land to benefit specific owners at the expense of others in the surrounding areas. Spot zoning can exist in the form of restricting activities from occurring on specific parcels, or by providing exclusive use benefits to specific parcels—such as allowing licensed marijuana operations in select places. It is essentially the practice of creating zoning “islands” that are decidedly dissimilar to their surrounding areas, and is often the subject of legal challenges.
Recently, a San Bernardino County Superior Court judge invalidated Measure O, a voter-approved ballot initiative that eliminated a city-wide ban on medicinal cannabis and required the City of San Bernardino to allow commercial cannabis operations in certain parts of the city. The court found that although Measure O provided a variety of areas in which cannabis cultivation, manufacturing, testing, transportation, and distribution could occur, it limited the possible dispensary sites to just two addresses, one of which was the Flesh Showgirls strip club.
The court noted that not all spot zoning is invalid per se, but spot zoning is impermissible if there is no rational basis for it—i.e. if it is arbitrary or capricious. An example of potentially permissible spot zoning would be restricting a portion of land within a commercial development to residential use, because doing so might benefit the public interest by maintaining dedicated housing. Similarly, a city might allow an island of land within a residential neighborhood to obtain commercial licenses for retail and light manufacturing, in order to preserve a neighborhood commercial district for the benefit of the local community.
In the San Bernardino case, however, the court found no such rational basis. The court opined that no justification was provided for why two particular parcels were singled out as the only locations in the city that could have dispensary use. According to the court’s ruling, “these two addresses are separated from each other by several miles and are surrounded on all sides by similarly situated yet non-qualifying properties,” and that there was no rational basis for doing so, nor was there any discernible public interest served. The court determined that Measure O effectively created a zoning duopoly in the two dispensary addresses “with the owners of these two locations the sole beneficiaries.” Accordingly, the court concluded that unlawful spot zoning had occurred, and held that because it was not feasible to sever the dispensary zoning from the overall initiative, Measure O was invalid in its entirety.
We have heard rumblings of special interest groups organizing to pass initiatives in California jurisdictions that currently prohibit commercial cannabis activity. Any groups pursuing such a path should be mindful of the Measure O case and the invalidity of spot zoning without rational basis. While the idea of eliminating competition by drafting a ballot measure favoring select parcels of land may seem like an attractive business proposition, even if an initiative passes with support of the voters, it can still be overturned by a court of law if it is legally defective.
While San Bernardino County may have to go back to the drawing board on its cannabis zoning, the lesson is clear: if you’re going to limit the places where cannabis businesses can operate, there has to be a rational basis for doing so that serves a legitimate public interest, and it cannot create an unfair monopoly over the market for select participants. Otherwise, you risk a court invalidating the ordinance altogether.