2017-06-02 / Front Page

South Portland mulls marijuana rules

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — In a marathon workshop that lasted nearly four hours last week, the South Portland City Council began the task of sorting out rules for retail marijuana operations locating within the city.

In that regard, as many municipalities across Maine await the February 2018 expiration of a moratorium, by which time the state is expected to have its licensing procedures in place, South Portland is venturing into uncharted territory.

“You folks should be proud of yourself for being so proactive. You’re so far ahead of so many other communities on this issue,” said Peter Mourmouras, a tax accountant and marijuana industry lobbyist from Old Orchard Beach, on hand at the May 22 session to answer questions.

“A lot of other communities are pushing this off. You guys are definitely ahead of the curve,” agreed Mourmouras’ son, Tom, head of cannabis consulting firm Fiscal Therapy Financial.

Even so, with so much still uncertain, and so much of what the city might do dependent on state rulemaking, the council refrained for setting anything in stone.

“I think we should stay away from numbers at this point and allow staff to provide guidance,” said Councilor Claude Morgan.

Thus, there was talk about setting a minimum distance between stores specializing in marijuana, but no agreement on an actual figure. But even at the 30,000-foot level that focused on philosophies and not specifics, the council had much to discuss.

“I don’t think we want to drive down the street and see one retail marijuana store after another,” said Councilor Linda Cohen, citing reports out of Colorado that similar strips of pot shops have become subject to slum and blight.

“The market is really the limiting factor here,” Morgan said. “I don’t think we’re in danger of that happening. And besides, we wouldn’t do the same thing to restaurants. We wouldn’t want to prevent them from clustering.”

Mayor Patti Smith suggested leaving the issue of minimum distance as something for future councils to address, if it becomes an issue.

“It may be too late then,” said Councilor Susan Henderson.

“Once they’re in, they’re in, and your not getting rid of them,” Cohen agreed.

Although numbers were not cited, the council shied away from one proposal submitted by City Planner Tex Haeuser, using rules already in place for medical marijuana cultivation facilities, to establish a “sensitive uses” buffer zone of 1,000 feet from any school, park, church or residence. That would have limited retail marijuana stores to a small area around the Maine Mall.

Instead, most on the council seemed to favor the general approach suggested by Morgan.

“I’m proposing that we would limit retail marijuana to the same places where one could purchase or consume alcohol. Period,” he said.

However, city attorney Salley Daggett said there are a number of bills now before the Legislature on the topic, including one that would set a 2,000-foot separation between marijuana stores and schools or churches.

“This may ultimately be decided on the state level,” she said.

Daggett also said the winds in Augusta are blowing toward limiting licenses for cultivation of marijuana to no more than 800,000 square feet of space, statewide, with 40 percent or permits reserved for operations of 3,000 square feet, or less.

To that end, Councilor Eben Rose introduced an extensive proposal – which Morgan complimented as, “the kind of thing staff should have put together” – that would allow marijuana cultivation to be run as a home occupation in spaces 10-feet by 10-feet.

“One hundred square feet is a spare bedroom, or part of a basement,” he said

“The heart of this proposal is to actually let the residents of South Portland realize some of the economic benefits of this tsunami of the green economy,” Rose said. “I know this sounds really anathema to 80 years of inculcation as to the evils of marijuana, but I think we can all agree the genie is really out of the bottle now.”

“It allows small cultivators to enter the market, as opposed to the big boys coming in and controlling the entire thing. So, I think it’s a good idea,” said Councilor Brad Fox.

“Am I against that? No. I’m sure there are many people in this community who would welcome that income and I am not going to stand in the way of that earning potential,” Morgan said.

Rose’s idea would allow small-scale cultivation in residential areas, where retail marijuana operations are otherwise banned and growing is limited by the new state law voters approved this past November to six plants for personal use.

That, Councilor Maxine Beecher said, could pose a problem.

“You could have a neighborhood of 30 houses and they could all be growers,” she said. “I have a real concern with this. I’m willing to listen, but I’m not sold yet.”

In contrast, Morgan compared the concept to a city fad from several years ago for raising chickens

“People either found out that was not as interesting as they thought, or it was more work,” he said. “But there is now not a chicken coop in front of every home, it was not the end of Western civilization as we know it, and the city is still standing.”

“I personally don’t think the nuts and bolts economics are there, just based on my experience as a grower of other things,” Smith said. “But that’s not for me to decide, that’s for the potential grower.”

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@inthesentry.com.

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