GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A cannabis provider’s contentious plan to transform a Burton Heights bakery space into a recreational marijuana retailer will move forward.

After nearly 90 minutes of presentations, community feedback and debate Thursday, the Grand Rapids Planning Commission approved the special use permit for a cannabis retailer named Levels.

Luxe I, which owns Levels, plans to open the business in a portion of the South Division Avenue building that houses El Especial Supermarket. The property owner told the planning commission his tenant came to him, asking to scale back the supermarket to lower rent when the economy declined. Paul Weisberger, managing partner of Luxe I, said El Especial’s bakery is being moved to a site on Clyde Park Avenue.

The planning commission previously approved Luxe I’s plans for a medical marijuana provisioning center at the site. Thursday’s vote was focused on whether to expand that business to include recreational marijuana.

The city planning department said it received two letters in support of the project and 11 letters opposing it. Several community members showed up at the meeting to speak out against the plans, including a woman who shared a list of signatures from neighbors who believe the project won’t be good for the community, which has churches, a youth center, child day care, an organization that supports previously incarcerated people, a Salvation Army rehabilitation center and a substance use disorder clinic.

The planning commission waived sensitive land use restrictions years ago for the lone church because the building’s entrance and orientation were outside the 1,000-foot buffer zone, and the commission upheld that decision Thursday.

“This is just shameful to put this (marijuana shop) in the area of a number of rehab facilities,” one woman said.

“Shame on you. Shame on you for putting this right there in front of their eyes,” she added.

“It’s important to note that there are no sensitive uses within the district as it relates to rehab facilities,” Weisberger, the Luxe I partner, responded.

Leonard Van Drunen of the Burton Heights Business Association said this is the fifth marijuana application Burton Heights has seen in the past three years. He said previous proposals were also met with community opposition and voted down by the planning commission.

“You may be wondering, ‘What’s up with those people in Burton Heights? Why are they so strongly opposed to marijuana stores?’ I’ll tell you why. It’s because we know the 50-year-old history of Burton Heights and we’re trying to write a new story for Burton Heights,” Van Drunen told the planning commission.

He said 50 to 60 years ago when Burton Heights experienced suburban flight, the planning commission approved four party stores, several nightclubs and “numerous porn businesses” for the neighborhood. Van Drunen said while the rise of the Internet led to the demise of the neighborhood porn businesses, the party stores remain, attracting a crowd of people doing illegal activity that drives away businesses, customers and “creates a hostile environment” for neighbors.

“All of this is a result of city planning commission’s decisions a long time ago that were very bad for Burton Heights and still are bad for Burton Heights. Please help us write a new story for Burton Heights. Treat us fairly. Reject this guy. He can take his store elsewhere. He’ll be fine,” Van Drunen concluded.

“One of the first cases I had when I was in law was that zoning and land use issues and application interviews are not a popularity contest. They’re to be based on what the same standards that you’ve approved a great number of facilities in this community,” Weisberger said.

“I think we’re dealing with a vocal minority and I respect their opinion, but I ask that you use your land use basis when evaluating this application,” he added.

Before the vote, Grand Rapids Planning Commission member Lawrence Williams said he supports recreational marijuana but he opposes this proposal because based on public input, it’s not harmonious with the community the city is trying to foster.

After additional discussion, commission members turned to planning developer Kristin Turkelson for a reminder of how community feedback and opinions should play into the decision. Turkelson reminded the group that the city commission sets policy, including how the land is used, and the planning commission is responsible for applying those standards in each individual case.

“So in many ways, you are simply administering the zoning ordinance as it is. So it is not within your purview to determine whether it’s good policy or bad policy. It’s not within your purview of do you agree with it or not. That policy or that determination has already been made for you,” Turkelson said.

“We have generally determined that cannabis retailers are allowed within the city of Grand Rapids and, generally speaking, within our traditional business areas,” she continued. “But then the planning commission, with the information that’s gained with the public hearing process, has to have that pause, that consideration of is this location appropriate for in this case the cannabis retailer. And based on what are the circumstances happening around us, where is the access, what does the building look like, will it impair the character, the planned development of the area?

“And so again, you’re administering the zoning ordinance. You’re not determining whether you like the policy that was adopted. Couple of years ago, you had a lot of feelings about that policy specific to the sensitive uses and the waivers themselves, but we reminded you that was not part of your purview and if you’d like it to be, this is not the body for you to serve on,” she concluded.

Ultimately, one planning commission member voted against the proposal.