A Denver business that hoped to open the nation’s first legal marijuana spa has come up short — by about 20 feet, to be more exact.
The city’s licensing director on Wednesday denied a license application filed by Utopia All Natural Wellness Spa and Lounge to allow marijuana consumption in an old Capitol Hill mansion, citing its location 980 feet from a child-care center. City regulations for the voter-approved social marijuana use ordinance require businesses that seek consumption-area licenses to be at least 1,000 feet from day cares.
Had it been approved, Utopia would have received the second license issued under Initiative 300, which was passed by 54 percent of Denver voters in 2016.
Utopia founder and CEO Cindy Sovine had appealed to Denver licensing officials for leniency and submitted a letter from the child-care center supporting a waiver of the proximity restriction, but the city’s decision says it lacks that authority.
Reached Wednesday morning, Sovine expressed disappointment and said she still was deciding what to do next.
One option is to appeal Wednesday’s license denial to a city hearing officer. Ashley Kilroy, the executive director of the Denver Department of Excise and Licenses, said Sovine also could abandon plans to occupy the Creswell Mansion, at 1244 Grant St., and seek a new property to house Utopia.
In February, The Coffee Joint in La Alma/Lincoln Park won approval for the city’s first license for a 21-and-over, bring-your-own marijuana consumption club. It’s located next door to a dispensary with shared ownership.
Sovine has set out plans at Utopia for cannabis-infused massages, ganja yoga, spiritual counseling and other services during the day. She also planned to have indoor and outdoor marijuana consumption areas in the afternoon and evening for members and to make the facility available for weed-friendly events.
“The whole idea is to create social opportunities to bring people together,” Sovine told The Denver Post earlier this year.
She said her plans for the spa were rooted in her exploration of the therapeutic potential of marijuana since her father battled lymphatic cancer. She also hoped to create a social setting friendly to medical marijuana patients.
But ultimately, the city’s mapping software determined that the Creswell Mansion was too close to a day care called the Third Way Center, 1133 Lincoln St., about three blocks away.
“On our businesses that don’t meet proximity requirements, we deny them,” Kilroy said. “It would be unfair to treat her any different.”
Utopia’s application drew support from five neighborhood organizations, but it had not yet faced a public license hearing. Besides its proximity to the day care, Kilroy said, the business still had not worked out issues that included obtaining a proper zoning use permit for the building and submitting sufficient odor-control plans.
Kilroy said she weighed the proximity issue first, and carefully. She has some leeway on location restrictions, she said, such as when a part of the building that’s not used for the business juts out too far, causing the business to fail a distance test.
But in this case, Kilroy said, Utopia acknowledged the building was a little too close to the day care. Kilroy cited recurring instances in which the city denies liquor licenses because a proposed store is too close to another liquor store and rejects event-based liquor license requests if they’re filed past the deadline.
“I’ve talked to city attorneys and I don’t really have any discretion in this area,” Kilroy said.
The voter initiative itself imposes a 1,000-foot buffer between schools and licensed businesses with marijuana consumption areas. Last year, after a committee weighed additional rules and regulations, Kilroy adopted similar buffers for child-care centers as well as alcohol and drug treatment centers.
Those proximity restrictions drew protests from the initiative’s original backers, who contended they limited the potential locations for licensees too much. But Kilroy argued those buffers were reasonable because they mirrored location restrictions for marijuana shops.