Lompoc — Toke of the Town
City Becoming Santa Barbara County's Cannabis Capitol
It wasn’t long ago that Lompoc was a temperance colony — alcohol sales were prohibited. Now, on the city’s main stretch, there is a liquor store or bar on almost every corner.
A new prohibition is about to lift — the one on pot. Grappling with the extent of cannabis sales to allow, the Lompoc City Council decided last week to adopt a very minimalistic ordinance. They are not going to limit the number of dispensaries, and they said yes to all types of businesses, from cultivation to retail to manufacturing to marijuana-smoking lounges. Most city leaders in California see Amsterdam-like cafés as a nonstarter.
Like many California cities, Lompoc is struggling with high employee pension costs. The city’s unfunded liability amounts to $68 million. In addition, Councilmember Jim Mosby recently led the charge to stop any new taxes from being placed on the ballot. There has been a perception that the city could be forced into bankruptcy, but Mayor Bob Lingl said: “We are so far from bankruptcy it’s laughable,” adding, “We are doing extremely well.” He did, though, acknowledge the pension problem.
Speculation has abounded that Lompoc leaders could be looking to cannabis tax revenue to provide economic relief, but that might not pan out. Mosby said he flatly opposes taxing the cannabis industry. “I am not trying to balance the city’s coffers on the backs of cannabis [operators],” he said. “We don’t tax the wine industry. We’re not taxing Starbucks.” What’s next? Mosby asked — women’s shoes?
At last week’s City Council meeting, Lingl urged his fellow councilmembers to hold off on passing the ordinance. “Do we really want to rush this thing through and make some mistakes?” The County of Santa Barbara, he stressed, had every single department participate in drafting the ordinance. The council was noticeably unmoved. Mosby said in an interview that marijuana is already wildly accessible. “You can’t put your head in the sand.” Councilmember Victor Vega said that he wanted to dispel the “fear factor” associated with marijuana. Councilmember Jenelle Osborne, who worked on drafting the ordinance with Vega, noted that the language could still be “fine-tuned.” (A recall petition against the four councilmembers who approved it is already circulating.)
The cities of Santa Barbara and Goleta are in the middle of exhaustive processes to hammer out ordinances. Goleta city officials participated on Monday in a four-hour workshop to gather community input about cannabis regulations. In Santa Barbara, it has taken years for medical marijuana dispensaries to receive final approval to open their doors. Mosby joked Santa Barbara has a reputation for being more “open minded.” “It seems like they are going to be very restrictive,” he said. It raises the question, are cannabis operators looking to invest in Lompoc?
Already, Lompoc has a booming Wine Ghetto. A row of Butler buildings with roll-up doors function as working wineries — picking bins, forklifts, and production equipment are scattered around the premises. On the weekends, winemakers carve out a section of their warehouses to offer wine tastings.
Still, Lompoc is somewhat lacking in terms of a clear identity, explained Arcadian winemaker Joe Davis. “What is the industry of Lompoc?” he asked. “There hasn’t been a flower grown here in probably 50 years,” he joked, referring to the city’s slogan, “The City of Flowers.”
Part of the problem, he explained, is that there are not many fine restaurants or upscale hotels as there are in nearby Solvang and Los Olivos. Tourists, therefore, only spend money in Lompoc for a few hours. Business owners complain the zoning codes are too restrictive. Even food trucks were banned in industrial zones until just recently, after the wine industry successfully lobbied city officials.
Davis could not say what the impact of marijuana dispensaries would be on the Wine Ghetto. “I am not concerned if someone decides to open [a dispensary] near the ghetto,” he said. “I don’t necessarily think it’s the same customer base.” He added, though, that some Sonoma winemakers are exploring cannabis-infused wine.
Several cannabis operators applauded Lompoc’s decision to adopt a far broader ordinance than what many other cities are considering. “I believe Lompoc truly has an opportunity to become the capital of cannabis on the Central Coast,” said Joe Garcia, president of the Lompoc Valley
Cannabis Coalition. The website weedmaps.com shows at least a dozen delivery services currently supplying Lompoc residents with pot.
Though there will not be a limit on the number of dispensaries, there will still be restrictions. State law prohibits pot shops from opening within 600 feet of a school or youth center. This boundary outlawed use of an old bank building that would have been perfect, considering it already has a huge vault and the cannabis industry relies almost entirely on cash.
Lompoc is one of the only places in the state that has entertained the idea of marijuana lounges. These lounges cannot be within 1,000 feet of a school or youth center, and “proper filtering” must be installed “to handle the smoke.” (Cannabis industry experts say the market is quickly moving toward cannabis oil.)
Still, there is plenty of space for the industry to buy, and rental prices have increased some in recent years. New faces keep showing up at the council meetings. But as Crystal Reyes, a manager at Cal Green Medical, pointed out last week, “There aren’t going to be 30 landlords willing to rent” to cannabis businesses. “It’s Lompoc.”
Lompoc, historically, has leaned conservative. The council chamber has a large “In God We Trust” sign along the back wall. Vandenberg Air Force Base is nearby. At first glance, it is hard to believe the city is at the forefront of the industry. Yet 57 percent of the city voted to legalize recreational marijuana.
Police Chief Pat Walsh, who previously served as police captain in Portland, Oregon, has brought a voice of skepticism to the council chamber. Last week, he said his department would treat cannabis businesses like bars. “We hold our bar owners accountable,” he said.
A mural in Lompoc recalls its dry history in the 19th century, when colonies could decide whether or not to prohibit alcohol. The mural depicts tension between women with the “People’s Union League” who sought to destroy bottles of booze and the bartenders at the underground saloons. The words “Sociability,” “Morality,” and “Intellectuallity” run across the bottom.
It remains to be seen if a similar conflict will now erupt over marijuana. “We have no control for protecting the 47 percent of the population who voted against Prop. 64,” Lingl lamented. “What we did by passing this ordinance was ignore the 47 percent that voted against it.”
Yet when the city opened its first liquor store, Lingl said, they “thought it was going to be the end of Lompoc.” It wasn’t.