City Hall chambers erupted with cheers and about 30 supporters hugged and congratulated each other Tuesday when the Colorado Springs City Council allowed a private downtown club for marijuana smokers to remain open.
The city administration had sought to close the club - Studio A64 at the corner of Colorado and Wahsatch avenues - but the council denied the move in a 5-3 vote. The council said the club not only meets the definition of a civic organization, it also meets the city's zoning codes and has done no harm to the city. Further, the council directed the city staff - the very staffers who appealed the club - to write regulations that better define private pot clubs for future applicants.
"The city should look at regulations for this type of business and not let it stop here but move forward and do it right," said council member Jan Martin.
Supporters and members gave passionate testimony in favor of the club that some called a special, safe place where patrons make art, play music and take classes. Members also can smoke marijuana that they purchased somewhere else.
The club opened more than a year ago and has had a bumpy ride ever since with undercover police investigations, a notice of cease-and-desist and an appeal hearing before the Colorado Springs Planning Commission.
In February, the planning commission upheld its original approval of the club, and patrons celebrated thinking the fight was over.
But in March, the city's planning director, Peter Wysocki, appealed the commission's decision on behalf of the city's administration. He argued in a quasi-judicial hearing at City Hall that the planning commission got it wrong when it approved the club. Wysocki said the club is not in compliance with city zoning codes. The code, he said, does not have a definition for smoking pot in a private club. He also argued that membership clubs need to be civic in nature.
Anticipating that supporters would say recreational marijuana use is legal in the state of Colorado for adults over age 21, Wysocki said the issue is not about Amendment 64 - the state law making marijuana possession legal.
"The issue is whether the planning commission made the right decision, whether the code allows this type of use," he said.
But the planning commission saw no legal reason to stop the club, said Chuck Donley, planning commissioner who testified at the hearing to explain the commission's vote.
Other than Wysocki, no one spoke against the club.
About 20 people testified in support of the club. One resident termed the city administration's appeal harassment and said the city gave no legal reason why the club should be denied.
Other supporters wanted the council to see that the club did have civic use. They go to the club because smoking marijuana on university grounds is illegal; some said they go for the art and music; and others said it's a safe place away from bars and alcohol.
"Please let us keep this safe place in our community," said Ingrid Henderson, a UCCS student and vice president of Students for Sensible Drug Policy.
Studio A64 owner KC Stark said the appeal should have been tossed out. There was no proof that anyone had been adversely affected by the club, which is a key criteria for an appeal. He also argued that the appellant was listed as the "city administration" and not a person.
"There has not been one complaint filed in a year and half," Stark said. "I stand here accused and don't know who my accuser is. You are taking my due process away."
Stark, at times, tussled with City Council President Keith King, who later scolded Stark and told him he was disrespectful during the process. Still, King voted to deny the appeal. Council members Martin, Val Snider, Joel Miller, and Helen Collins also voted to deny the appeal and keep the club open. Council members Merv Bennett, Andy Pico and Don Knight voted to approve the appeal. Council member Jill Gaebler was absent and did not vote.
Miller said that although he voted against Amendment 64 and against allowing recreational marijuana sales in the city, he could not deny the club. Appellants must show the business or zone change has had an adverse impact on them, he said.
"I'm still not clear on what the adverse conditions are to (Wysocki) or the city," Miller said.
Miller said he concluded that the city administration based its complaint on media attention to the club and not because it violated zoning rules.
"There was no citizen complaint," he said. "It was an internally generated complaint."