PAUL YOUNG
   City News Service
RIVERSIDE (CNS) – As a stimulus measure, Riverside County supervisors today approved easing the application process for individuals and businesses seeking to establish cannabis retail outlets and cultivation sites in unincorporated communities.
“We’re keeping the same criteria as before, looking at each project to ensure it meets the requirements of the county,” Transportation & Land Management Agency Director Juan Perez told the Board of Supervisors. “What we will no longer have is a ranking system to look at whether one applicant or another is better coming out of the gate.”
Ahead of its 5-0 vote in favor of dropping the ranking process, Perez told the board the level of interest in submitting applications to the county to open cannabis businesses had slackened, and the hope is that by ending the need to submit “requests for proposal,” parties will be more willing to come forward.
RFPs entail more filings and another hurdle, as well as more staff time to conduct reviews, and Perez said the same effort can be accomplished with fewer steps by having applicants apply for conditional use permits only.
“The (ranking process) is a limiting factor,” Perez said. “We can continue at a robust pace … move as quickly as possible (and) make this as streamlined  as possible, but still have the quality at the end.”
According to Perez, last year, the first year that the county’s comprehensive marijuana regulatory framework was in effect, 71 commercial cannabis operations were proposed, but after the RFP process, only 24 went forward.
The county approved one storefront operation — in Highgrove — last fall.
“Let the free market determine how many dispensaries people want,” Supervisor Jeff Hewitt said. “Let’s allow the market to determine the winners and losers.”
Several speakers, including Supervisor Chuck Washington, expressed reservations about lowering the regulatory bar, but Perez said the tight scrutiny of prospective vendors wouldn’t change, only the ranking system that could knock applicants out of the running in the first stage.
Every application will continue to be vetted on a “case-by-case basis,” according to the TLMA director.
Licensing criteria is spelled out in policy B-9, as well as Ordinance No. 671, both of which list the steps which commercial marijuana cultivators and retailers must go through to qualify for conditional use permits and receive consideration for development agreements with the county to operate in unincorporated areas.
Conditional use permits each have a 10-year life span and cost $6,000 up front.
When the board approved the regulatory framework in 2018, it limited cultivation and retail operations to specific areas zoned as residential-agricultural (R-A), residential-rural (R-R) and controlled development (W-2).
Public benefit fees are charged for the cost of doing business in the county. In the case of an indoor cultivator using between 2,500 and 5,000 square feet, the fee would run $4.50 per square foot. A dispensary operator using 2,500 square feet or less would owe the county $16 per square foot. A manufacturer of cannabis products with over 3,000 square feet dedicated to the business would be required to pay $4.50 per square foot.
The fees are collected annually, separate from sales tax receipts.