HANFORD – Members of the Hanford City Council want Police Chief Parker Sever and Community Development Director Darlene Mata to go on a fact-finding travel mission before council members decide whether to allow an industrial-scale medical marijuana cultivation and processing facility south of town.

At their regular meeting Tuesday, the council directed Sever and Mata to study similar facilities already in operation and see what kind of issues may have arisen.

Keith Stephenson, executive director of Oakland-based Purple Heart Patient Center, which has proposed the facility for the former Pirelli tire plant in the Hanford Business Park near 11th and Idaho avenues, had asked the council to act quickly to change zoning to allow the facility.

Stephenson's initial proposal promises 1,115 full-time jobs starting at $15 an hour and going up to $80,000 to $100,000 for "senior management" at the site. Stephenson also forecast $14 million in annual tax revenue for the city.

Currently, the cultivation and distribution of medical marijuana is prohibited in Hanford. The municipal code and the zoning ordinance would have to be changed to allow the project in the industrial area.

The council's decision to support out-of-state travel for Mata and Sever came after members of the public weighed in Tuesday on both sides of the issue.

"We don't know who these people are," said Hanford resident Bob Ramos. "We could use that kind of money, but do we really want to put ourselves in jeopardy there?"

"The jobs that will come will be a boon," said Mike Lopez. "That Pirelli plant has been vacant since 2001. To just sit there and allow the site to go unused, that mind-boggles me."

"This is madness, that you would use valuable water to grow marijuana," said Hanford resident Mike Lamb.

"There are medical marijuana breakthroughs being made every day," said Nathan Odom, speaking in favor of the project. "Marijuana is one of the most versatile plants in the world."

As they did at the Sept. 20 council meeting, councilmen raised a number of concerns about the proposal, including security, water use, distribution and whether the employment and revenue projections are realistic.

"They have some concerns," Stephenson said in an interview after the meeting. "I believe that those concerns were addressed. I believe that somewhere along the line, something was misconstrued. I look forward to working with the city. Public safety is a top concern."

A majority of the council members said they might be willing to support the industrial facility. At the same time, members said they want to keep the existing ban on medical marijuana dispensaries in city limits.

However, members said they want more information about how industrial-scale medical marijuana sites are doing in other states before moving forward.

Sever said he and Mata are considering visiting sites in Oregon, Colorado and/or some locations in California. He said it might take a couple of months to do the research and report findings to the council.

Sever said he's interested in learning about water use, odors, environmental impacts, effects on the surrounding community, inspection regimens and security issues.

"I'm really interested in the security aspect of it, the effects on the community, the effects to the [local] hospital," Sever said.

Sever attended a briefing last week given by a Purple Heart security adviser, but he thinks that a lot of questions remain unanswered.

"I could safely say I'm pretty hesitant about the proposal right now," Sever said.

Meanwhile, other officials said that too much delay on the part of the council could jeopardize the proposal and send Stephenson looking elsewhere.

The Pirelli plant property is currently in escrow, according to officials. They say Purple Heart has put down an unspecified amount of money as deposit.

"Too much delay could absolutely jeopardize the proposal," said City Manager Darrel Pyle. "[Stephenson's] going to have to keep his eyes open, keep his ears open, make a judgment call before the [zoning] ordinance [change] is adopted."

John Lehn, the Kings County Economic Development Corp. CEO who has been trying to fill the old Pirelli building for years, called the council's concerns "legitimate" but added that council members need to be "diligent" about getting any remaining sticking points addressed as soon as possible.

"In my conversations with [Purple Heart representatives], they've covered their plans to address these issues," Lehn said.

Lehn said the Hanford Business Park has been underused for more than a decade.

Officials remained split on how the passage of Proposition 64, which would legalize recreational pot in California, might affect Purple Heart's proposal.

"If Prop. 64 passes, it would enhance [Stephenson's] business," said Councilman Gary Pannett. "Are we really looking at medical marijuana, or is it going to turn into a recreational supply?"

"If they can make money selling it recreationally, I think that's going to be part of their business model," said Sever. "To me, I think it's going to end up being dual use."

Stephenson said that Purple Heart only serves patients with legitimate prescriptions for medical marijuana.

Lehn said he didn't think Prop. 64 would affect Purple Heart's proposal.

Pyle said that if Prop. 64 passes, it might ease some concerns that people have about the Purple Heart proposal for a medical marijuana facility.

"I think there's a recognition that if Prop. 64 passed, marijuana is going to be pretty prevalent throughout the state of California," Pyle said.

The reporter can be reached at snidever@hanfordsentinel.com or 583-2432. 

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