By David Buckley
A curious parallel phenomenon of the Needles community’s move to the forefront of the California marijuana revolution is the confliction of attitudes among the members of the Needles City Council. Nevertheless, whatever their individual true attitudes with regard to the advisability of permitting the citizenry access to marijuana, collectively, the city council appears to be at the forefront of California cities in embracing the ethos of tolerance broached first by the passage of 1996’s Proposition 215 Compassionate Use Act permitting the dispensing of medical marijuana and is now positioning itself to get in on the ground floor of the wholesale recreational marijuana bonanza precipitated by the passage of Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act of 2016, which has now gone into effect. Some city officials – council members Louise Evans, Tana Belt and Robert Richardson – come across as being philosophically opposed to living in a society where marijuana is accepted as a means of legalized intoxication. Others are less fastidious or puritanical. With the reality that a certain segment of the population has an appetite for cannabis and that under the umbrella of state law growing it, processing it, selling it, medicating with it and smoking it is acceptable, city officials have resolved to use the opportunity of legalization to allow marijuana producers and entrepreneurs to function, giving the economy a boost in the arm and serving as a potential springboard for other perhaps related business activities, while creating a revenue stream for itself through taxing mechanisms. Such an approach is reasonable and defensible, these officials aver, given the financial challenges facing the city, which among San Bernardino County’s 24 incorporated municipalities, dwells at the bottom of the economic picture along with the county seat of San Bernardino, which only last year emerged from a nearly five-year long sojourn into Chapter Nine bankruptcy protection, and Adelanto, which has likewise embraced moving to a marijuana-based economy to deal with its fiscal crisis.
Yet, as the rubber is hitting the road in terms of actualizing the newest sector of Needles’ economy, codifying the rules by which this new cannabis entrepreneurial class must play by, writing, passing, putting in place and then enforcing ordinances and zoning codes, some of those would-be private sector elements who want to participate are not being given entre to the marijuana feast table and others are. It is worth noting that those on whom Needles sheds favor are politically well connected associates with, supporters of or friends with the city’s political insiders and elected officials. Those on the outs with city officials are being excluded from participating in the green gold rush.
One of the ways this is being done is through what is referred to as “spot zoning,” that is, a gerrymandering of the city’s zoning map.
At its November 28, 2017 meeting, the Needles City Council unanimously approved initiation of a community-wide general plan and development update with special attention to the downtown area. The main feature of the proposed general plan update would be the creation of a “Downtown Needles Improvement District,” and zoning change for parcels located therein prohibiting cannabis businesses.
A map of cannabis project locations produced by the City of Needles reveals that the Needles City Council has allowed sixteen cannabis projects in what would be considered “Downtown Needles.” These projects are in various stages of permitting but all apparently have the green light from the Needles City Council. The creation of a Cannabis Industry Exclusion Zone, at this late date, could potentially create a discriminatory situation in which, in one location on Route 66, Cannabis Businesses would be permitted on two corners of an intersection, while the other two corner parcels would be denied permitting and suffer a significant reduction of property values.
It should be noted that all cannabis projects in Needles, other than the city’s four medical marijuana dispensaries, have no signage or visible indication of the presence of a cannabis business.
The development of special districts or zones is an essentially straightforward process, although in San Bernardino County this process tends to be a rather rough ride for all concerned. The first order of business is to identify the boundaries of the proposed district or zone. This was not the case in Needles. The Needles City Council actually voted unanimously to move forward on the creation of an improvement zone, but at that time was unable or unwilling to delineate the area of the proposed improvement zone. According to Needles City Councilman Dr. Robert Richardson, a situation has developed in the Needles cannabis industry that has caused the City of Needles to be concerned about ” being sued for discrimination.” The creation of an improvement zone is an attempt to avoid litigation, while assuring the discriminatory ends desired by the Needles City Council.
In concurrent developments potentially effecting the issue of spot zoning in San Bernardino County, on December 28, 2017 Judge David Cohn ruled that the City of San Bernardino’s voter approved cannabis ordinance, Measure O, was spot zoning by singling out parcels of land for uses beneficial to their owners at the expense of others in the surrounding area.
The previous day, at the December 27, 2017 meeting of the Needles City Council, the council approved yet another cannabis project in Downtown Needles at 111 D Street, directly across Front Street from the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Rail Yard, in the heart of Downtown Needles. Council Member Louise Evans fulfilled her promise to property owner Larry DeAtley and voted no on the project. Evans was the sole dissenting vote, reportedly due to the project’s location in Downtown Needles.
Governor’s Cultivation, represented by Derek and David DeAtley, sons of Larry and Pam DeAtley, owners of Deco Foods, which is currently located on the cannabis project site, admittedly have engaged in negotiations with the Needles Unified School District over the potential relocation of a school facility proximate to their property. Under the city’s marijuana regulation ordinance, cannabis-related facilities can operate no closer than 500 feet from a school, church, park or any gathering spot where children are present. At a recent Needles City Council meeting, David DeAtley mentioned the possibility of relocating the school facility to a disused bank building, allegedly owned by a local fraternal organization, on Route 66. The news in Needles this week is that both the school facility and a church are relocating and the local Girl Scout council is considering an offer on its property near the proposed cannabis project. The Needles Unified School District is also a player in the recent cannabis-generated real estate boom in Needles, as the district is reportedly engaged in negotiations with a cannabis business for the purchase of property owned by the district on Eagle Pass Road. The overlay of a Cannabis business exclusion zone in Downtown Needles would shunt more prospective buyers to the Needles Unified properties.
The conflicting attitudes towards Cannabis displayed by Needles City Council members are a direct reflection of the divergence of views of their political backers and the San Bernardino County Republican Party, to many of whom cannabis and cannabis use is anathema. The cannabis conundrum in Needles is greatly exasperated by the geriatric set, to whom the mere utterance of the trigger words “protect downtown Needles” elicits over-the-top reactions. This reaction is steeped in the belief that once grand Downtown Needles, which in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and into the 1970s served as the most heavily traveled gateway into the Golden State, is being subjected to further humiliation by its transition into a marijuana bazaar. The slow but sure decline of Needles, tied in many ways to the demise of Route 66, coupled with the aging of the entrepreneurial class that once reigned in Needles, led to neglect and a leadership vacuum, so that what is left of the place is a crime-riddled landscape that looks more like a post-apocalyptic venue in a futuristic science fiction movie than the resplendent riverbank town it once was. The current cannabis revolution holds the yet unproven promise of resurrecting Needles from both financial and societal ruin. But the last elements of an era gone by are reluctant to embrace the Brave New World. Change is always a psychological challenge, and the prospect that Needles will make its way in the future by allowing anyone over the age of majority to have free access to a substance that for the previous five generations would subject those growing it, trafficking in it, selling it, carrying it, possessing it, sharing it and smoking it to a hefty prison sentence strikes some as a risky and unwise proposition. Even if the sale of marijuana proves a raging financial success, they are concerned that Needles will have to pay a toll in social misery as a consequence.
Statistically, nowhere do the number projections show Cannabis playing a greater role in turning the tide of an economically downtrodden city than in Needles. The figures quoted from statements from Needles City officials provide insight into the sheer magnitude of the yet-to-fully-manifest cannabis-based recovery. At a recent Needles City Council meeting, Councilman Shawn Gudmundson let the proverbial cat out of the bag, confirming both the number of cannabis projects in various stages of development in the City of Needles – that number being an unbelievable 45 projects – and also the cannabis project-to-resident ratio of one commercial cannabis project for every one hundred and fourteen Needles residents. It’s as if a new day has dawned on the City of Needles. The City of Needles has actually predicted the creation of over one thousand jobs.
Everywhere in Needles signs of hope for a renewed prosperity are evident, but it is the conversations with locals that provide the greatest insight into the true impact of cannabis. Many local residents contend that the City of Needles has never done better than now, and give full credit to the Needles cannabis industry for such a drastic reversal of fortune for the City of Needles. From a once infamous ghetto on the shore of the Colorado River to what officials hope could become the Cannabis Capitol Of America, this cannabis success story is hard to beat, at least for those true believers in the marijuana legalization and access movement, which includes those who use the substance occasionally, regularly or even religiously. From their perspective, the “old guard” are more concerned with perpetuating the outdated economic concepts that nearly destroyed Needles in the first place.
For at least two generations, Needles has been a closed market. Toxic small town politics greatly aggravated by disenfranchisement by distance from California political centers, together with Route 66’s eventual phasing out, led the City of Needles to the brink of ruin, before a quite foreign concept came to town, that being an open market free of the anti-competitive influences of yesteryear. The world of the 21st Century has progressed far beyond that which set the standard for Needles in the dusty days of the great depression. The success of an open market model for the Needles cannabis industry will hopefully lead the Needles City Council to expand that concept into other industries in Needles. Nevertheless, the favoritism city officials seem predisposed to show toward some would-be cannabis entrepreneurs in Needles carries with it the chance that the city will not be host to a true open market.
By David Buckley