Old church called barrier to new pot dispensary

2013-08-12T00:00:00Z 2013-08-12T08:16:00Z Old church called barrier to new pot dispensaryDarren DaRonco Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
August 12, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Tucson's newest marijuana dispensary hasn't opened its doors but is already rankling neighbors.

Some West University residents are up in arms over a new dispensary at Sixth Avenue and Sixth Street.

Residents say the dispensary is within 1,000 feet of a historical church, and the city has failed to enforce its own ordinance restricting where nuisance properties can locate.

But city officials contend the church has been empty for years, and when planning staffers reviewed the neighborhood back when the application was submitted, the building was dormant.

The Downtown Dispensary applied for a state license in May 2012 for a site at 221 E. Sixth St.

As part of its application process, the owners had to clear it with the city to ensure the dispensary wouldn't open near a school or a day-care center or other protected business.

After the owners submitted their paperwork to the city in April 2012, Planning and Development Services Department Director Ernie Duarte said his office sent someone to the site to see if the proposed dispensary fit city zoning rules.

"We do physical inspections on these types of applications because we can't see everything based on an aerial photograph," Duarte said.

While driving around the 1,000-foot perimeter, city staffers encountered the empty First Baptist Church at 604 N. Sixth Ave.

"We saw it was closed. It was vacant, and there was a 'for sale' sign up," Duarte said. "It was just a building."

A search of real estate listings shows the property has been up for sale since at least 2010.

One 2011 listing described the building as the "former 1st Baptist Church" property.

But residents disagree with the city's assessment and say that, while the church has gone through some transitions over the years, it's never ceased being a church.

"It's been used as a church all along," said Chris Gans, president of the West University Neighborhood Association. "I find it really disturbing the city's making decisions still without engaging the neighbors."

First Baptist Church Pastor John Jones said he doesn't understand why the city would allow a marijuana dispensary near a church.

Jones, who is out of the country and responded via email, said the church experienced declining attendance over the years so it decided to lease the building to University City Church earlier this year.

When contacted, a University City Church representative said it leased the church six months ago and had no comments concerning the dispensary since church officials weren't familiar with it.

Many of the church's members are getting up in age, Jones said, so the church transferred ownership and management of its properties to CrossLife Ministries. Jones is a part of CrossLife Ministries.

Jones said he thought the city may have believed the church vacated the building since CrossLife changed ownership names a several years ago.

"We were still using the church in various ways under the name of CrossLife Church up to the time we rented to UCC," Jones wrote. "Perhaps since we used the CrossLife Ministries/CrossLife Church name the city got confused. We did keep the (corporation name) open and its name legal during this time."

But just keeping the name on the title and holding a handful of events from time to time doesn't make it an active church, said Councilman Steve Kozachik, who represents the area.

"Just because an empty gas station is sitting there, doesn't mean it's still pumping gas," Kozachik said. "The law is pretty clear that in order to be a roadblock to a dispensary, the church would have to be operating on a regular basis. Staff made a good-faith effort to find anybody who would vouch that the empty building was doing that and couldn't find anyone."

Jones said he thinks the city made an honest mistake and might ask the dispensary to go elsewhere or amend the city code.

That's unlikely since you can't move a "nuisance business" after the fact.

"If that were the case, anybody could open a day-care center next to a bar and cause it to shut down," Kozachik said. "That's not how the law is applied."

So unless someone produces irrefutable proof the church was active when the city inspected the area in 2012, the dispensary will likely stay. It's set to open Aug. 20.

Contact reporter Darren DaRonco at 573-4243 or ddaronco@azstarnet.com.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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