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Medical marijuana grow operator's lawsuit targets Zeppelin Development, Judy Montero

Dan Emmans, owner of Grass Roots Health and Wellness Center, says that Denver City Council's proposed changes to the zoning rules medical marijuana growhouses have little to do with pot and a lot to do with politics. On Tuesday night, councilmembers will decide whether to grandfather in growhouses set up in areas that were originally zoned for commercial use but changed when the city passed its new zoning code last year. And even if the growhouses are grandfathered in, roughly 52 grow sites would still have to face a public approval board every two years to remain in their current site. But Emmans thinks the measure really targets his enterprise.

On Thursday, we reported that Emmans had filed an intent to sue developer Mickey Zeppelin, current councilwoman Judy Montero and former councilwoman/now Zepplein consultant Susan Barnes-Gelt. Because Montero is a sitting public official, Emmans must give ninety days' warning before the suit can actually be filed -- but his attorney, Sean McAllister, has already sent a draft to the potential plaintiffs.

According to that draft, Emmans was in a small bidding war with Zeppelin back in July 2010 for a large, commercial warehouse in the slowly developing River North neighborhood, also known as RiNo. Zeppelin, who has not responded to calls or e-mails, has been a major developer in this industrial area; his twenty-acre TAXI project overlooks the South Platte River -- and the building Emmans wanted to lease.

Emmans got the lease on the property, which runs nearly $50,000 per month with an option to buy. He set up a grow for his shop there, and leased out additional space to other dispensaries.

The draft lawsuit charges that Zeppelin repeatedly contacted the building's owner to find out what Emmans was doing in the space, and tried to convince the owner to break the lease. When the owner refused, Emmans claims that Zeppelin publicly outed the location -- even though growhouse addresses are to be kept confidential under state law.

On October 17, 2010, Barnes-Gelt, who works as a consultant for Zeppelin Development and also writes a column in the Denver Post, wrote a piece for the Post that identified the location of the warehouse in a caption underneath a photo of the building. In that same article, Barnes-Gelt acknowledged the law that keeps grow locations private, calling that "deeply disturbing." (The online version does not contain the photo or the caption.)

Barnes-Gelt, who had not seen the intent to sue notice or the draft lawsuit by Friday evening, laughed off Emmans' accusations. At the time she wrote the piece, she says, the city attorney's office told her that police and public safety had to keep the locations secret, but nothing in the law protects a growhouse's whereabouts if someone finds its location simply through observation. "You would have to be blind to not know that is a growhouse," she says. "You can see the lights through the windows in the evenings. It's so obviously a grow; who wouldn't know that?"

The following month, Zeppelin was on 7News talking about his concern that growhouses could be damaging to the area; the reporter stood in front of the building in a live feed and identified it as a growhouse. Emmans says that inspectors with the city's building and fire departments have also come out numerous times, in each case after Zeppelin made complaints about the warehouse.

Because the location has been made public, Emmans claims that his tenants have told him they aren't going to renew his leases; he's had a difficult time finding interested growers to take their place. The notice of suit sent states that Emmans is asking for at least $1.5 million in damages because many of his subletters say they won't be won't be renewing their leases. Any more damages would be determined by a jury.

The draft lawsuit also charges that because Councilwoman Judy Montero leases her office space in Zeppelin's TAXI building, she has a "financial relationship" with the developer and should remove herself from voting on an issue she helped draft that would require that most growhouses be reapproved every two years. (Montero was out Friday on a city furlough and has not returned calls or e-mails.)

As Barnes-Gelt sees it, the two-year rule is intended to protect what she calls a "fragile" area. Industrial properties in the neighborhood had steadily been converting to more mixed-used residential developments until the economic downturn, she notes; after that, stagnant development led to some warehouse owners renting out to growers. "I think if these guys were good neighbors, this would be a different story," she says. "But these armed growhouses that look like armed camps? They aren't good neighbors."

But Emmans feels the proposed change specifically targets him and his warehouse, and says there's no way he would pass a review now that his warehouse location has been made so public. The building has been mentioned at several city council committee meetings, with members openly discussing "the Brighton Boulevard property."

"I bet everything I have that in two years they get rid of me," Emmans says. "With everything that is going on, and everything [Zeppelin] is throwing at me, what reason would I have to think that I would get a fair shake? I haven't got one yet."

Read William Breathes's MMKL center reviews in Mile Highs and Lows.