Goleta’s City Council took a critical step to prevent a “Green Mile” from forming along Hollister Avenue, voting on June 4 to allow one single cannabis retail storefront in the city’s Old Town Heritage District. That’s a far cry from the nine applications the city had received for Old Town — a quantity that horrified the neighborhood and the councilmembers, who immediately began working to modify the rules. The council ended up establishing wide buffer zones at schools, the Community Center, and residential areas, as well as chopping the sanctioned 15 shops down to six in the entire city. It also ultimately changed the process from a land-use one to a business license set of rules in line with the state’s licensure. But who will own the solo shop in the Heritage District is an open and confusing question, discussed in detail by public speakers at the June 4 meeting.
Goleta opened applications for recreational cannabis shops on a first-come, first-served basis in August 2018. Many speakers last week complained that the same operators hired different land agents to line up early and file multiple applications. Indeed, in the list of 15 applicants, five names appear twice. At last week’s meeting, the council voted to limit each cannabis operator to only one shop.
Interestingly, three people from Coastal Dispensary spoke in favor of the new rules, even though they got the boot from their spot opposite the Goleta Valley Community Center because that buffer was widened to 600 feet. Devon Wardlow of Coastal Dispensary — which has been struggling to open a storefront in Santa Barbara on Chapala Street — lauded the councilmembers for listening to their community and advised them to require that the city’s cannabis operations have 50 percent Santa Barbara County resident ownership. Coastal’s entire management team are UCSB graduates, she told the Independent. Next, Coastal’s Ben Condron told the council the first five in the permit queue were real estate investment groups in Los Angeles and Sacramento, and that four of them seemed to be the same investment firm. John Giammanco, Coastal’s delivery manager, piled “fishy multiple licenses” and “definitely some manipulation going on” to the bonfire.
The first five they spoke of are Michael Bitton, Chris Hester, and Sid Dunmore, who occupy positions 4 through 8 on the applicants’ list. (Numbers 1 through 3 are held by the existing medical dispensaries.) They do indeed come from Los Angeles and Sacramento, and they do indeed know one another. Hester is a full-time cannabis consultant with North Coast Capital. He had listed Bitton and Steven Bohbot — both connected with The Standard Oil Investment Group in Beverly Hills — as partners with North Coast at 5890 Hollister, Number 5 on the list; Dunmore’s company, Emerald Capital Holdings, wrote the application check. With the exception of 290 Storke Road, which is Number 7 on the list, all of Hester’s applications are buffered out, which means they must find a viable location to stay in the game. He told the Independent that all his applications had different operators.
Dunmore’s attorney, however, appeared at the council to put a stick in the other applicants’ spokes. Amy Steinfeld of Brownstein, Hyatt, Farber, Schreck clarified that Dunmore had helped with the applications for the property owner at 290 Storke and 5836 Hollister, Cesar Ho. Her take was that the council should hold applicants to the property they filed for and if they’re now eliminated, they should just be ejected and not allowed to find another location. She agreed that each operator should have only one storefront, “for diversity,” and advocated a race to the finish line, stating whoever secured a spot first should get a license.
The Independent called Michael Bitton, who, at the council meeting, had protested he didn’t know he’d be jumped. He dropped his phone in surprise, but was open to describing the work it was taking to secure a cannabis permit in Goleta. “We were excited to be number one in line,” he said, talking about his and Bohbot’s pole position in Goleta’s cannabis race. After securing their first location — A-OK Power Equipment at 5777 Hollister — city staff told them it was too close to an existing dispensary. So they quickly found another spot (7433 Hollister, Number 14 on the list), which is now too close to residential areas after the rules established on June 4. It’s been an expensive process, Bitton said, paying rent on an empty storefront for months while doing the studies required for cannabis shops.
Bitton said he chose to operate a store in Goleta because he’d come to love the area when he attended school in San Luis Obispo: He had visited Goleta and Santa Barbara almost every weekend and now hopes to move here with his family. Steve Bohbot, his partner, said he has worked in retail in the high-end world of women’s fashion. “I fell in love with the retail aspect of this line,” he said, “and I’m geared up to move that aesthetic into the cannabis world.”
The cannabis license has been a frustrating process, Bitton said, but he praised Goleta’s planning staff, as did other applicants the Independent spoke with. “The staff is amazing,” he said. “I get to know all these people because I’m calling, I’m asking questions, all the time. [Planner] Kathy Allen is so encouraging. ‘You’ll get through this,’ she says.”
On June 4, after Coastal’s comments, the City Council asked who the operators were. Allen had to tell them the information was not available on the land-use application, but would be on the business license. A lot of moving pieces had to fall into place before the business license was finalized, she later told the Independent. And, as a practical matter, such licenses could be sold, though the new owner would have to jump through the applicant’s same hoops.
In addition to setting a buffer around the Goleta Valley Community Center of 600 feet, the council voted to put 600 feet between retail cannabis stores, keep them 600 feet away from K-12 schools, and 100 feet from residentially zoned properties. Each applicant who survived the new process would be allowed to have only one cannabis retail business license — no matter how many they’d applied for — and the applicants who were bumped by the various buffers had up to six months to find a new spot and try again.
After nearly four hours of listening and talking about cannabis, the council’s penultimate vote was to get rid of the list after six applicants had succeeded. On an open mic, someone could be heard saying, “Are we done?” “God willing,” was the reply.
Correction: This story has been revised and corrected since first being posted. North Coast “Investments” has been corrected to North Coast “Capital.” Revisions include additional information on operators and the three similar applicants.