July 25, 2013 Updated: July 25, 2013 at 6:00 pm
Manitou Springs may be the last hope for area residents who want to walk into a store and legally buy pot.
Early indications are that City Council may be interested in allowing retail marijuana stores, said Manitou Springs Mayor Marc Snyder.
It would make the historic, west-side town one of the only municipalities in southern Colorado to have shops that sell marijuana for recreational use. Colorado Springs City Council voted this week to opt out, and El Paso County opted out months ago. Other neighboring cities, including Woodland Park, Green Mountain Falls, Fountain and Monument also have opted out of retail marijuana sales.
"For me, it goes likes this: We want to honor voters of Colorado and El Paso County and specifically Manitou Springs. My belief is we will move forward with some type of licensing," Snyder said.
Colorado voters in November approved Amendment 64, which allows adults over 21 to possess 1 ounce of marijuana for recreational use. The law also allows stores to sell marijuana and other products made with marijuana, with a city's approval.
Voters in Manitou Springs approved Amendment 64 with 67.6 percent voting "yes" and 32.6 percent voting "no."
"That is a pretty strong number," Snyder said.
But before anyone thinks Manitou Springs will become a "pot town," there are a lot of considerations, Snyder said, including how many shops would be allowed, where they could be located within the city and how close they could be to schools and other marijuana businesses.
And given that Manitou Springs could be one of the few cities to allow retail marijuana sales the council might consider a cap on the number of stores to avoid creating a cluster of pot stores in town, Snyder said.
"I have had concerns that if all other jurisdictions opted out, the pressure would become enormous on Manitou Springs," he said. "I don't want to be the marijuana mecca of El Paso County."
The lack of available retail space and parking in Manitou Springs may keep the number of retail marijuana stores naturally low. On average, Manitou has a 2 percent retail space vacancy rate.
And when all of the rules and regulations came down for medical marijuana dispensaries in Manitou Springs, including that none are allowed along the three-block stretch of Historic Downtown Manitou Springs, the city ended up with only two dispensaries. One has since closed.
Snyder said the city follows a conditional use permitting process, which includes a public hearing for the applicants and it can be cumbersome.
"I suspect we will follow a similar licensing scheme for retail centers," Snyder said.
The council will be briefed by its attorney on the rules of Amendment 64 at a work session Aug. 13.
"Change is always difficult but I think we can move it along very reasonably at a pace that allows the community to digest the changes," Snyder said. "For us, I don't want (the community) to feel it is being rammed down the community's throat but I do feel there is strong community support for the direction we are going in."
Palmer Lake also is one of the last cities in the Pikes Peak region to address the issue. The city council is expected to discuss retail marijuana Aug. 8. Mayor Nikki McDonald said the council has not talked about the issue and she does not have a sense for which way the vote could go.
Cities must decide if they are in or out by Oct. 1, said Kevin Bommer, deputy director of the Colorado Municipal League, which helps cities navigate and implement state policy. By October, municipalities must designate the entity that would issue local licenses, which then could be issued to business owners Jan. 1, 2014.
"I've been saying if by October 1, you're not out, then you're in," Boomer said. That deadline is coming fast, he said, and is one reason why 20 Colorado cities have placed a moratorium on retail sales, a move that buys them time to write some local rules and regulations and watch how other cities fare under the new state law.
"At some point they will have to fish or cut bait," he said.
For those 36 cities that have banned retail marijuana sales, including Colorado Springs, the ruling isn't permanent, he said. City councils can bring back the issue at any time and citizens also can bring back the issue for a ballot question.
"Any action by city council is subject to referendum," he said. "As I understand it, what citizens can do is call for a referendum on the ordinance to opt out. If the ordinance is rescinded, then the municipality is back where they were before the ordinance passed."