The Pasadena City Council voted Monday night to approve the city’s second retail cannabis storefront location.
The marijuana company, Integral Dena LLC, had this same permit denied by the Planning Commission last year before appealing the decision to the City Council, which ended up voting 5-0 in favor, with two abstentions and one absence.
The company has been at the center of city’s marijuana controversies; critics have alleged city staff illegally favored Integral over other applicants, suggesting the company’s influence pushed staff to introduce a last-minute requirement for a licensed surveyor for which only it was prepared.
Like others in Pasadena’s cannabis process, Integral’s appeal centered on a seemingly simple, but technical question: In this case, how do you measure 600 feet? The city’s dispensaries must be at least 600 feet away from sensitive uses, which include churches, schools and residential zones.
Integral’s proposed location was right on the edge, depending on how it was measured.
Less than 600 feet away from the proposed storefront, a condominium complex straddles the border between commercial and residential zones; the dividing line runs straight through the center of the development. The condo’s nearest property line is 566 feet away in a commercial zone, according to a staff presentation.
Critics, such as Councilman Tyron Hampton, cannabis competitor SweetFlower Pasadena and consultant Martin Truitt, argued this makes the proposed site illegal.
City staff disagreed, advising the council Monday not to measure to the condo’s property line but instead to the border of the residential zone itself. Measuring it this way puts the proposed storefront exactly 602 feet away, staff said.
Both sides cite the city’s law, which Planning Director David Reyes told the council, “could’ve been written more clearly.”
As written, the law says: “No retailer shall be established or located within 600 feet, measured from the nearest property lines of each of the affected parcels, of any existing residential zone.”
With Councilman Victor Gordo absent because of a family emergency, Hampton was left alone on the council as the sole critic of the cannabis process.
“A property line is a property line,” he said. Because the condo was in a residential zone, and the law calls for measurements to the nearest property line, staff should have measure to the condo’s property line, not the residential zone border, Hampton argued.
His colleagues were hardly convinced.
“We can keep going around and around on this, and you’re not buying it,” Mayor Terry Tornek said after an hour of discussion. “This is an unusual situation. We have a single building in a split-zone.”
Reyes said measuring to the residential zone’s boundary line was consistent with other split-zone decisions the city has made in the past.
“I think the facts are pretty clear,” Councilwoman Margaret McAustin said. “If you read the code and you read the language, it’s very clear that we’re talking about measurement to the nearest residential zone boundary line.”
When his colleagues called for a vote, Hampton decided to abstain, saying: “The facts aren’t clear enough for me.”
Ahead of the meeting, Integral lawyer Richard McDonald called for councilmen Hampton and Gordo to recuse themselves from the vote; both officials have been outspoken critics of the city’s cannabis process with Hampton even calling for a complete overhaul of the system.
Hampton refused the request, telling the council he was unbiased and impartial, and Gordo was absent.
Meanwhile, Councilman Steve Madison recused himself from the vote under the advice of the City Attorney’s Office
Madison is a partner at Los Angeles-based law firm Quinn Emanuel, which represents cannabis company Med Men, one of the city’s six contenders eligible to open a dispensary in Pasadena. He has not recused himself from any of the previous discussions on this topic.
In contrast, Councilman John Kennedy did not recuse himself even though Integral donated $8,800 to fund his 2018 holiday party. A city spokeswoman said his recusal wasn’t required because charitable payments made to a third-party at an official’s request, otherwise known as “behested payments,” do not amount to a financial conflict of interest.
After the 5-0 vote, Integral founder Armen Yemenidjian told reporters, “We want to make the city proud,” framing his company as an alternative to illegal operators the city has worked to shutdown over the past few years.
Like Harvest of Pasadena, the only other company to have its proposed storefront location permitted, Integral still has four additional permits to secure before it can legally sell cannabis in the city. City officials have warned the entire process may be plagued by lawsuits and appeals.
When asked if he was nervous about acquiring future permits, Yemenidjian replied: “It’s my job to be nervous. … If I wasn’t nervous, maybe I wouldn’t be the right fit for the city. But being nervous makes me want to be great and do everything properly, and that’s all I strive to do.”
Integral has been at the center of the city’s cannabis controversies; repeated complaints from consultant Truitt led the city to hire an outside law firm to investigate City Hall staffers’ relationship with the company’s representatives.
After one month, the City Attorney’s Office released a statement, saying “there was no evidence to prove” any allegations of public corruption. Despite public records requests, officials have refused to release the investigation itself, even to members of the City Council, because it’s a “personnel matter.”
Beyond donating to Kennedy’s holiday party, in its application, Integral said its representatives met with multiple members of the City Council as well as city staff.
In an earlier interview, Yemenidjian said that he introduced himself to Tornek at “an Armenian event in 2018” and later “bumped into council members Kennedy and McAustin at a coffee shop” where he also introduced himself.
“I can assure you, I have not had a meeting with him or any of the applicants,” McAustin said at the time, adding that she didn’t remember the encounter.
Similarly, Tornek said he didn’t remember meeting Yemenidjian either, calling it a “nonevent.”
“If someone walks up to you at an event and introduces themselves, and you’re counting that as a meeting, that’s just silly,” Tornek said. “I never had a substantive meeting with Armen (Yemenidjian) or anyone else about cannabis.”
According to both the city and Integral, McDonald introduced Yemenidjian to City Manager Steve Mermell and Planning Director Reyes on Oct. 31, 2018 — two weeks before the first applicant workshop and two months before the application process would officially get underway.
Calling it a “meet and greet,” Mermell said they learned about the company’s background and operations in Las Vegas.
“There was nothing inappropriate about the meeting,” he said.