Dispensaries might have to wait for a while to get a special use permit hearing in Chicago's City Hall. (Flickr/Ken Lund)

New rules issued by the Chicago Department of Planning and Development (DPD) will likely delay the award of at least one dispensary’s special use permit. The rules for a new virtual meeting system, issued for the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA), which hears and approves requests for special use permits before a typical rubber stamp from the City Council, specifies that, “ZBA will not hear cannabis-related items at its May 15 meeting.” 

ZBA typically meets every two weeks, but has not met since March 6, creating a significant hearing backlog. Two proposed dispensaries for Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood, one for NuMed, another for an unidentified company, were scheduled to be heard on March 6, but received continuances to May 15. 

Some attorneys working to usher dispensary licenses through ZBA believe the virtual format is not necessarily good for cannabis issues anyway.

This virtual format is not good for all issues,” says Bryna Dahlin, an attorney from Benesch, Friedlander, Coplan & Aronoff specializing in cannabis issues. “I think cannabis is one of those issues. There’s intense community interest for those issues. It would not be fair to have a ZBA hearing in this format.”

While two dispensary applicants are hung up in ZBA now, a bigger problem looms: Dozens of new dispensary and craft grow licenses are anticipated to be awarded to companies later this year, how would a virtual ZBA manage those often contentious hearings? But also, before special use permits can be heard by ZBA, applicants are required by law to hold a public meeting in the Ward where they would be issued. How would those meetings be held?

Asked for comment, a DPD spokesman told Grown In, “At this time, there have been no changes made to the community meeting requirements outlined in the Cannabis Zoning Ordinance.”

The city’s new trick box on public hearings has perplexed attorneys working on cannabis permits.

“The ordinance is very clear, the meeting has to be conducted in the ward,” says Foley’s experienced land use attorney Donna Pugh, who represents numerous dispensary applicants. “I personally am not clear how that could be done virtually. That seems inconsistent to me, having it on the internet.”

But, since Governor J.B. Pritzker has delayed awarding new dispensary licenses, special use permits may not be a near-term concern. 

“We’re not going to get awarded these [dispensaries] or craft grow until maybe the fall,” says Dahlin. “I think that’s lifted the urgency around this.” At some point in the not so distant future, hopefully we’ll be able to hold community meetings with social distancing.”

Pugh also thinks ZBA will delay hearings because of Covid-19. “It’s very doubtful that they will resume business until September. This could go on for a while.”

In the meantime, DPD seems to be experimenting with virtual community meetings for other issues. A large public community meeting on planning for the city’s old Michael Reese Hospital site on the near South Side, has been turned into a Zoom meeting for tonight at 6:00 p.m.

“The Michael Reese meeting is filling a formal role on planned development,” says Pugh. “That’s not cannabis, but maybe it’s baby steps to that role.”

Note: This report originally identified Nature’s Care as one of the Gold Coast dispensary applicants that received a ZBA continuance. The report has been updated.

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Editor Mike is an itinerate reporter, recovering political consultant, and strategy game devotee.