2017-03-31 / Front Page

City sets standards for pot shops

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer


South Portland City Planner Tex Haeuser motions to a chart of allowed locations in the city for newly legal marijuana stores during a March 28 planning board workshop called to review proposed zoning regulations for retail marijuana operations. (Duke Harrington photo) South Portland City Planner Tex Haeuser motions to a chart of allowed locations in the city for newly legal marijuana stores during a March 28 planning board workshop called to review proposed zoning regulations for retail marijuana operations. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — As the South Portland Planning Board sat down at a workshop Tuesday, March 28, to review proposed zoning regulations for newly legal retail marijuana stores, acting Chairman Adrian Dowling said he didn’t want to see signs with giant pot leafs on them.

“It would be nice if they’d class up the joint,” he said.

It took him a moment to realize why everybody was laughing.

That was about the only moment of genuine levity in a three-hour dredge through 15 pages of draft ordinance language, however, as the volunteer board got down to the minutia of making the municipal sausage.

Still, as boiler plate as that work was, City Planner Tex Haeuser stressed at the outset the importance of crafting zoning rules that will work for both city, and those who hope to grow, test, package and sell a product that, until a statewide referendum last fall, had been illegal to even possess outside of medical use for more than a century.

“There’s enough money in this industry they will sue if they feel aggrieved,” he said.

With South Portland having doled out nearly $1.5 million to date defending its Clear Skies Ordinance that barred diluted bitumen, or socalled “tar sands” oil from entering the city, planning board members were all too aware of the costs involved in legal challenges to zoning rules.

Haeuser also said that, while the city council will have the final say, the work of the planning board will carry great weight.

“I think the council is relying on the planning board to come up with a table like this that you think makes sense,” Haeuser said, pointing to a chart of city zones and what type of marijuana operation would be allowed in each. “And they are going to give a lot of deference, I think, to this board, and what you think.”

In an expedited schedule designed to complete work before expiration of a moratorium on accepting site plans for retail marijuana sites, the planning board will conduct a public hearing on April 11 and make its recommendations to the city council. For planning board members absent from Tuesday’s workshop, that session could carry more than the usual amount of editing to the draft ordinance. The council will then conduct its own workshop session on April 24, followed by a first reading of the new rules on May 1 and final passage on May 15.

The biggest part of Tuesday’s work was deciding where in the city each type of retail marijuana operation – cultivation facility, manufacturing plant, product testing site and retail store – will be allowed once the state concludes its work in crafting licensing rules, and how all of that will jibe with medical marijuana facilities. Out are all residential zones, including a 1,000- foot buffer from any lot in a residential zone. The 1,000-foot setback also applies to a building used as a dwelling, as well as churches, schools, parks, playgrounds, athletic fields, juvenile or adult halfway houses, correctional facilities, substance abuse or rehabilitation centers and child care facilities.

“At this point we are very restrictive in the performance standard, in terms of distance and other factors, to the point that the council may end up wanting to look at that,” Haeuser said.

Although the planning board did not spend much time debating it, the zoning language drafted by Haeuser does not make a place anywhere in South Portland for marijuana social clubs – places where customers can buy and consume marijuana on the premises.

The board did agree that while different types of retail operations can be allowed within the same building – such that a plant making marijuana cookies, for example, could have a storefront attached – all such businesses will have to be in freestanding buildings with no other type of business allowed. Also not allowed in the same building will be medical marijuana and all testing facilities, the latter intended, Hauser said, for “third parties” not involved in growing, making or selling the product.

Storefronts also will also be kept relatively small, to a maximum of 2,000 square feet.

“What we don’t want is a kind of Weed- R-Us big box store,” Community Planner Steve Pulio said.

Pot shops will be limited to being open from 9 a.m. until 8 p.m., and must have a sign at the front entrance warning that “Possession, use or distribution of marijuana is a violation of federal law,” that it is illegal to drive a vehicle under the influence of the substance, and that no one younger than 21 is allowed on the premises.

The proposal also bans the use of drivethru windows.

“I think that goes without saying,” Haeuser said.

However, the performance standards treat pot shops the same as fast food restaurants in terms of customer volume used to calculate the traffic impact of each new store and the requirements that might entail for roadway, parking and entrance construction.

Planning board member Linda Boudreau said that was smart, considering South Portland as yet has no idea what state regulations will look like, or what rules surrounding municipalities might come up with, up to and including full-on bans.

“We have no idea how many towns around here are going to go along with this. We could get none of the business, or all of the business. And so, it would be best to be strict like this, and then we can always change it,” she said.

Still, some, like Boudreau, wondered if the proposed rules might be too much of a good thing, especially compared with rules that had been put in place when medical marijuana was made legal in 1999.

“We seem like we’re being so restrictive with medical marijuana versus this retail/ social use,” she said. “I understand it was new then and the council must have given direction to be very conservative in allowing it in the given locations, but it seems like we are now opening the flood gates, as opposed to taking that same conservative approach. To me it seems a little bit inconsistent.”

That’s based in part by the fact that new rules do not place caps on the number of retail shops allowed.

“There was some conversation about what impacts this will have on residents, neighbors, surrounding properties and other businesses that have already invested in the city,” Assistant City Manager Josh Reny said, summarizing the council directive on what it hopes to get back from the planning board. “We want to make sure we are putting a regulatory regime in place that’s very thoughtful and rational, but at the same time allow for it, and not just in one or two locations, but generally in commercial areas where other similar businesses would be allowed.”

Currently, medical marijuana dispensaries are allowed in South Portland’s general commercial district, it’s central and regional commercial district, and in its non-residential industrial district, while medical marijuana cultivation is allowed in all industrial districts, as well as in the general commercial district and Commercial District C.

As currently written, cultivation for retail sales would be allowed in the same places as now approved for medical growing. Manufacturing plants would be allowed in those areas, as well as the suburban commercial district, professional office district, village extension district, Broadway corridor district, and Mill Creek core district. Testing facilities would be allowed in the same zones as manufacturing, as well as in the Main Street community commercial district.

Retail storefronts, meanwhile, would be allowed in all commercial districts, but not in industrial zones.

All marijuana site plans would be processed by the city and planning board under rules for granting special exceptions to current regulations.

As to how city residents will react to marijuana operations coming to the city, and what long-term consequences that might have, only time will tell.

Ultimately, Haueser said, “we can only control what we can control.”

Public hearing

The South Portland Planning Board will hold a public hearing on proposed zoning for retail marijuana operations, including where in the city such shops may be located, at its next regular meeting, a 7 p.m. on Tuesday, April 11, in council chambers at city hall.

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