Chicago’s rules for where dispensaries and other cannabis businesses can set up shop would be dramatically changed to give greater control to the local City Council member under an ordinance soon to be introduced at City Hall.
The city currently allows cannabis companies to open in certain zoning districts around Chicago that are typically found in business corridors without the need to obtain a zoning change from the council, but all companies must receive a “special use” permit from the city’s quasi-judicial Zoning Board of Appeals, or ZBA, which reviews the companies’ site plans and ensures compliance with state law.
The measure to be introduced Wednesday by Ald. Brian Hopkins, 2nd, would do away with the ZBA process — which some cannabis operators have complained can be time-consuming and costly — but would require all cannabis companies to receive a zoning change from City Hall before opening their doors.
The move would likely force cannabis operators to get signoff from the local member of the City Council before being approved in the Zoning Committee, which in all but rare circumstances defers to colleagues on matters in their wards.
Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly, 42nd, told Crain’s he’s in full support. Reilly and others have also been frustrated that the ZBA has approved permits for dispensaries despite objections from the City Council or community groups, which Reilly said proves the “system is broken.”
“The ZBA process is onerous, it’s time-consuming, it’s expensive and a lot of licensees are shouldering a lot of costs in these delays,” he said. “When the ZBA rules against the community, it’s the local alderman who wears the hat has to deal with the fallout.”
Reilly has welcomed dispensaries into his ward, but said if other communities don’t want them, the City Council should be able to prevent them from opening.
“Obviously, if you run this through the Zoning Committee, the local alderman will have a lot more control,” he said. “We’re closest to our constituents. ZBA members are not elected officials. Many of them don’t live in our wards, yet they’re making decisions that impact our wards in a pretty substantial way.”
While the administration of Mayor Brandon Johnson was not involved in crafting Hopkins’ proposal, it could gain support from council members, who often seek more control over developments in their wards.
Ald. Walter Burnett, 27th, whose ward is home to a bevy of pot shops in the West Loop, told Crain’s he would have “no problem” with the ordinance because it would place control in the hands of his colleagues and local community groups.
Unlike his predecessor, Johnson has not been concerned with curbing that informal process known as aldermanic prerogative. Advocates say it places the control of zoning matters in each of the city’s 50 wards in the hands of the local city official most familiar with the area, but critics point to the City Council’s long history of corruption and say it places too much power over development in the hands of one person.
Ald. Andre Vasquez, 40th, said he believed the intent to speed up the process was correct, but that the measure would leave the city’s cannabis rules “more restrictive” than they need to be, saying the rules should be the same as the standard for serving alcohol, which requires a license but often doesn’t require a zoning change or City Council action.
“It’s easy for us to say we’re frustrated with the current process and how not quick it’s moving,” he said. “I don’t know that moving into the council site makes it any quicker, and I’m sure you’ll have some alders who have different perspectives that can impede progress by saying we’re not going to improve anything in a ward, and I don’t think that’s good for the city.”
Akele Parnell, an attorney and dispensary owner who previously worked with the Cannabis Equity Illinois Coalition to secure a community benefits agreement with a West Loop pot shop, told Crain’s he was “nervous” about the political process of obtaining a zoning change.
“If it’s just a zoning map amendment process it can become a political game where it’s not based on whether or not the operator is good or not, or whether the dispensary is a good location or not, but could just be whether or not they have a relationship with aldermen . . . or maybe the alderman has a another group they like more,” he said.
While acknowledging the ZBA process can be costly, Parnell said he still prefers it to obtain a zoning change.
The dispensary Parnell is a partner in, Marigrow, had to obtain both a zoning change and ZBA permit to open in a former diner in Lincoln Park.
“So far the ZBA has had a pretty good grasp of the issues that dispensaries present to local communities and the residents,” he said. The board has also seen through the “reefer madness that sometimes accompanies those zoning efforts that weren’t always based in facts . . . but based in fear.”
Edie Moore, the legislative director for Chicago NORML, a cannabis advocacy group, said she was opposed to the ordinance because it’s “harder to go through the City Council versus the ZBA, whose actual job has been to evaluate planning and planned use.”
But beyond whether Hopkins’ ordinance gains traction at City Hall, Moore said the biggest barrier to opening a dispensary in the city is that when former Mayor Lori Lightfoot overhauled the city’s zoning rules in 2021, the City Council successfully watered them down to not include B-3 zoning districts — which are found all over business districts on the South and West sides — among the zones permitted to host dispensaries without a zoning change.
Moore, who also is part of a group that has six dispensary licenses, said she’s been searching for a suitable location for two years and said it’s a “damn shame” there isn’t a dispensary operating on the south lakefront.
“I’m a product of the Southeast Side. I grew up hanging out up and down the lakefront, and I call the whole lakefront home,” she said. “Most of the properties that I’ve looked at either have a bank loan on them and the bank says, ‘Oh no, cannabis, nope, can’t do that.’ Or (the property is zoned) as a B-3 and requires thousands in rezoning and legal expenses.”
Moore said cannabis advocates have requested a meeting with the City Council Black Caucus to stress the need to open up more zoning districts to dispensaries to prevent companies from overlooking the South and West sides.
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