Medical-Marijuana Companies Won't be Thwarted by Location of "Reverend" Al Sobol's Church, Judge Rules

See also: Medical-Marijuana Dispensary Sues Fountain Hills Over Competitors' Distance From "Church" Run by Pot Marketer Al Sobol

A judge has refused to overturn a decision by Fountain Hills to authorize medical-marijuana dispensaries near an alleged church run by by medical-marijuana marketer Al Sobol.

Following a hearing on Tuesday, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Katherine Cooper ruled that the Town of Fountain Hills did not act unreasonably in issuing preliminary zoning approval to several companies and individuals, even though the addresses of the potential dispensaries are located within 500 feet of Sobol's church. Sobol has mail-order minister credentials from the Universal Life Church.

As we reported in our July 17 blog post, the Nature's Healing Center, a would-be dispensary company that appears to have ties to Sobol, sued Fountain Hills after the town issued zoning approvals to several of its competitors.

The proximity to Sobol's church at 16929 East Enterprise Drive should have caused the town to reject the competitors' zoning applications, Nature's Healing Center argued.

Fountain Hills will only get one of the 100-or-so dispensaries expected to open around the state in the coming months. After voters approved 2010's Proposition 203, the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act, the state Department of Health Services decided that only one dispensary could inhabit each of 126 arbitrarily drawn "CHAAs," (Community Health Analysis Areas), in Arizona. Competition is fierce for each CHAA, and in most CHAAs, several companies are vying to be chosen. The DHS will hold a random drawing on August 7 to select one qualified applicant for each CHAA.

Nature's Healing Center wanted to be the only valid applicant in the Fountain Hills CHAA, ensuring that only it could be chosen in the DHS drawing.

But Judge Cooper refused to make that happen. Fountain Hills is legally allowed to apply reasonable discretion in issuing zoning permits, she noted in her ruling. Even a small part of the property intended to be used by Nature's Healing Center encroaches on the 500-foot boundary bubble created by Sobol's church, the site of which Sobol began leasing in March. No evidence was presented by Nature's Healing Center that the actions by town officials in approving the competitors' zoning applications was "unreasonable, irrational, or an excessive use of power," Cooper wrote.

The defendants, all would-be dispensary owners, were suspicious that Sobol had opened the church specifically to thwart them. They included: the Healing Company, the Medicine Room, LLC, Nels Pederson, Vladimir Buer, Lawrence Berle, Hedjazi LLC, and Mark and Kimberly Steinmetz.

Sobol testified in Tuesday's hearing that he didn't know the Nature's Healing Center principles and had no business deals with them.

Yet the evidence indicated a possible tie. Fountain Hills' senior planner Bob Rodgers wrote to Sobol on May 17 that he'd had a conversation with Bruce Bedrick, the founder of Nature's Healing Center, about the church's status as a non-profit. Rodgers' letter refers to Bedrick as Sobol's "representative," though both Sobol and Bedrick maintain they had no business relationship. Bedrick told New Times he couldn't recall why he talked to Rodgers about Sobol's church. Bedrick also said it was a coincidence that he'd recently considered buying the building inhabited by Sobol's church.

On Tuesday, Cooper told the defendants in the case that it was irrelevant, for the purposes of the hearing, whether or not Bedrick and Sobol were scheming together. And now, because of her ruling, it really is a moot point.

The competition is still in the game.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.