Committee eyes regulations for marijuana facilities

SOUTHWEST HARBOR — There are no towns in Hancock County with adult use marijuana facilities, as of yet, but a committee designated to come up with language for the land use ordinance or licensure regulations is meeting weekly to let residents in Southwest Harbor decide if they want to be the first.

Made up of town officials, proponents of legalized marijuana, as well as opponents of having any marijuana facilities within the town, the marijuana committee first met Jan. 29 and were scheduled to meet again this Wednesday. There are 10 people on the committee; eight attended the first meeting.

Their goal is to develop a recommendation regarding changes or additions to the town’s LUO and/or licensing restrictions greater than those in place at the state level and present it to the Board of Selectmen for approval and placement before voters at this year’s annual town meeting.

Even though the language of the ordinance changes does not have to be complete by March 6, a question asking voters whether they are in favor of the changes or not needs to be ready at that time to put on the ballot. Members of the committee questioned whether that deadline was feasible.

“The ability to do it is there,” said Town Manager Justin VanDongen during the initial meeting. “But first we need to figure out what we’re trying to do.”

One committee member asked if doing nothing was an option. In Maine, towns have to opt-in by vote of their legislative body — either the town’s residents or a board of selectmen or council — to have both medical or adult use marijuana facilities within its borders.

“We’ve decided we want to give the voters the option to vote to adopt an ordinance,” said Kristin Hutchins who is representing the Board of Selectmen on the committee. “We could do something as simple as adopting the state’s regulations.”

A straw poll went before voters during the Nov. 2019 election with five questions asking whether residents were in favor of allowing different types of marijuana businesses to operate in the town.

All but one of the questions showed more residents in favor than against these facilities, but most by very narrow margins. Allowing medical marijuana stores got the most support with 212 votes in favor and 152 against it.

“Medical products don’t have to be tested, which drives me absolutely insane,” said Natasha Johnson, a member of the committee who has spoken in favor of regulated businesses in town. “I would want to know whoever was growing it wasn’t using Miracle Gro.”

Respondents of the poll favored allowing retail stores for adult use, or recreational marijuana, by a narrow margin of 188 votes in favor to 176 against.

Dick Diamond, a member of the committee, stressed the results did not show a majority of the town’s population in favor. John Izenour, another member of the committee, said the nearly even split among the questions still showed a significant population of the town in favor, which selectmen deemed was enough interest to put the question before the voters to ultimately decide.

“A municipality that has a mixed-use ordinance, how do you deal with that?” Diamond asked the group.

Outside of watching a video provided by Maine Municipal Association’s legal team to educate town officials on state laws, the committee voted to elect Jesse Dunbar as chairman of the committee. There were discussion about timelines, whether to increase or decrease the distance businesses are allowed to operate in relation to a school and how to craft ordinance language in a town with a mixed-use land use ordinance.

“The history of this town is we’re very reluctant to say how people can use their land,” said Hutchins.

Right now, the state requires businesses to operate 1,000 feet from a school. That distance would not allow for any businesses to operate in downtown Southwest Harbor because of the location of Pemetic Elementary School. Towns have the option to reduce that to 500 feet.

“The biggest concern that has been expressed to me is this becoming our identity,” said VanDongen. “I think if there’s a way to allow for regulation so we don’t become ‘that pot town,’ that’s what we work towards.”

Sarah Hinckley

Sarah Hinckley

Former Islander reporter Sarah Hinckley covered the towns of Southwest Harbor, Tremont and neighboring islands.

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