Pot Pushers Come After Church United Pastor
|A San Diego marijuana production facility is moving forward with plans to open a warehouse in the southern reaches of the city, and its tactics are attempting to push a well-established church out of its dwelling. But Pastor Andy Ballon and the congregation of Vision Church San Diego are not going away without a fight.|
The trouble started last year when Cannversions Inc., a marijuana enterprise, leased a building in an Otay Mesa industrial park. As the business was going through the permit process, they discovered Vision Church San Diego was operating just 449 feet from its space. City ordinance requires that there must be at least 1,000 feet between marijuana operations and parks, churches and schools. Determined to move forward with their plans to manufacture pot in that location, Cannversions Inc. made an offer to purchase the property from the church’s landlord. The landlord declined the purchase offer.
Undeterred, Cannversions Inc. filed a complaint with the city, alleging the church was operating illegally in a FEMA flood plain and lacked the required parking spaces. If the pot business could get the church evicted, it would be full steam ahead for its growing operation.
In response, Vision Church San Diego has filed a lawsuit seeking to block an order by the City of San Diego to vacate the place the church has called home for the past nine years.
|Vision San Diego is not alone. According to Ballon, at least three other churches in San Diego County have been targeted by marijuana businesses seeking to expand their growth and financial profits. Similar reports have also surfaced in Fresno and Oroville.|
“Marijuana is legal in this state,” Ballon said. “Right here where I live, on the way to church I probably pass five dispensaries. Obviously, morally we don’t want pot, but legally it is acceptable. So it’s not like we are saying that we demand that the businesses don’t exist in our community. The City of San Diego approved 40 different marijuana production facilities, so they are going to be in our communities no matter what. We simply want to protect our freedom to assemble as we have, and to worship, and to serve this community.”
Right now, that looks iffy.
Following up on the Cannversions Inc. complaint, city inspectors toured Vision Church last summer, cited them with eight violations, and ordered them to cease operations immediately.
“You are definitely blindsided,” Ballon said of the city’s order. “You start questioning certain things. You start worrying about the ramifications. As a church you want to operate and do what is correct in the eyes of the city and county. It was definitely a burden that was placed upon us. We definitely wanted to handle it. That was always the mentality. Whatever the situation or the rules, we definitely want to fix it and comply.”
After receiving the CIVIL PENALTY NOTICE AND ORDER, the property owners arranged a meeting with city officials. Ballon was hopeful, as they had received a letter from FEMA confirming the church was not in one of its flood plains. The church was also willing to correct the other violations.
“They heard us out and at the end they said there was nothing they could do,” the pastor said. “We had to leave or run the risk of being penalized $4,000 a day, $500 per violation per day. We were laying our hearts out, giving them our point of view. We thought we had some compelling information for staying in that location. However, it seemed the church was out 0f the equation at that point.
Leaving the meeting, Ballon remembered an offer presented by Church United months earlier. Ballon had attended a Church United Awakening Tour in Sacramento in which Church United offered to connect him with Advocates for Faith & Freedom (AFF), a religious freedom law firm that often works on projects with Church United. Ballon agreed and AFF filed suit on behalf of Vision Church San Diego in January of 2019.
“We are going out on a limb because we don’t know what is going to happen,” Ballon said. “We are trusting God to see what’s going to happen, but I really feel that the church has a legal right to be there. It’s our God-given, and legal, right to assemble and worship. We’ve been there for such a long time.” Still, the church will likely be assessed a daily fine from the moment they received the Aug. 17 order until they cease operations — unless they prevail in court.
The pastor admits the church board initially considered packing up and quietly moving on. But Ballon said the more he’s learned about America’s founding principles and religious protections established by its founders, the more committed he’s become to exercising those rights.
“It’s being exposed to these truths and resources shared by Church United — and the thought that we do have a voice — that encourage us to rise up and shine,” he said. “We do have a voice and we should use it and not just cover up that light that we have, which we have been doing for too long. We have been given rights as a church, yet oftentimes the church has been too quiet. Too many times, I’ve seen churches kind of walk away and not stand up for their right to worship.”
Ballon, who — like every person in the church — does not receive a salary for his work in ministry, said he’s not surprised by the battle with the marijuana industry. He added that it’s not a coincidence that the church would be singled out as it is reaching out to the community with weekly food distributions, substance abuse recovery programs (Celebrate Recovery), and specialized ministries for every age group.
“I know it’s the attack of the dark side,” he said. “It’s an attack of the enemy because we are mobilized and we are doing something good. I could not stay quiet. We are being respectful. We’re not slamming anybody, but our voice has to be heard. This is where faith in God has shined, where in the midst of this little storm we are going through we’re still trusting in God.”