Moratorium sought on pot dispensaries in Bridgton

BRIDGTON RESIDENT Steve Collins said he was speaking both as a citizen and the chairman of the Bridgton Planning Board in asking selectmen to approve a November referendum that would place a six-month moratorium on any new applications for a medical marijuana dispensary in town.

BRIDGTON RESIDENT Steve Collins said he was speaking both as a citizen and the chairman of the Bridgton Planning Board in asking selectmen to approve a November referendum that would place a six-month moratorium on any new applications for a medical marijuana dispensary in town.

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

Would Bridgton be ready if a medical marijuana dispensary wanted to operate in town? Would it know how to deal with a permit request to lease a vacant warehouse for a marijuana-growing operation?

Not by a long shot, believes Planning Board Chairman Steve Collins.

That’s why, on Tuesday, Collins asked Bridgton Selectmen to approve a Nov. 4 referendum vote to enact an emergency six-month moratorium on such businesses, so that rules can be created to govern their location and operation.

Selectmen agreed to place the emergency moratorium ordinance on the ballot. If passed by voters, Bridgton would join dozens of Maine towns and cities grappling with what many say is a lack of state oversight over a rapidly-growing industry.

Maine’s Medical Use of Marijuana Program allows for eight regional nonprofit dispensaries, the closest of which is located in Auburn. But, much of the demand is filled by the small-scale caregivers, either operating out of their home or, more recently, renting commercial space to grow the herb. As of July 31, there were 1,533 registered medical marijuana caregivers serving 3,980 patients statewide, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the state Marijuana Program. There are 298 caregivers in Cumberland County.

Selectman Paul Hoyt was opposed to a moratorium, saying he didn’t think the prospect of medical marijuana dispensaries or cultivation sites met the legal standard of a risk to public health and safety or would overburden public facilities.

But Collins disagreed. “It overburdens by virtue of being a high-value, very portable commodity,” he said.

Tuesday’s meeting was the last opportunity for the board to act on local questions in time to make the Nov. 4 ballot. Later in the evening, selectmen also approved placing the final draft of the updated Comprehensive Plan on the ballot.

Collins said that some time ago, he had “heard a rumor” of plans for a medical marijuana dispensary in Bridgton. He said he polled his fellow planning board members about the need for a moratorium, and “The board thought it was a good idea.”

Collins said a new ordinance needs to be drafted to guide his board in the event they needed to review a formal application for a marijuana dispensary or for a site to cultivate marijuana. As it stands now, the only document they could turn to would be the Site Plan Review Ordinance, which doesn’t offer any guidance on such uses.

“I would hate to have to see the board with no more than the Site Plan Review Ordinance that we could judge the application on,” said Collins. “I’m not advocating for or against (marijuana dispensaries), but (marijuana is) a high-value commodity with an attraction to thieves,” and such dispensaries and cultivation sites will put extra pressure on the BPD (Bridgton Police Department),” he said.

He said Bridgton has had a “good track record” with moratoriums, in that the town has used the time to craft new ordinances, such as the Groundwater Extraction Ordinance that followed concerns over Nestlé Waters coming to town. A committee could be formed with representation from the police department, health community officials and the planning board, said Collins.

Selectman Chairman Bernie King met with Town Manager Bob Peabody Thursday after Collins asked for his request to be placed on Tuesday’s agenda, and directed Town Attorney Richard Spenser to draft the emergency moratorium ordinance. The document makes the following points in providing justification for a moratorium on marijuana dispensaries and sites of marijuana cultivation:

• Maine has liberalized its laws since 1999, when the growing of medical marijuana was first made legal. The law was expanded significantly in 2009 and altered again in 2011 to increase the number of health conditions that can legally be treated with medical marijuana.

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• Allowing dispensaries “in locations not adequately served by roads and related infrastructure could overburden Bridgton’s public facilities.”

• If not properly located, such dispensaries “pose potential risks to the health, safety and welfare of Bridgton’s citizens.” Because of state laws and patient confidentiality rules, local police are limited in their ability to look at what’s going on at a facility.

• The Comprehensive Plan needs to be amended “to develop reasonable rules, regulations, ordinances, restrictions, conditions and limitations governing their location and operation.” The recently completed update does not address the issue at all.

If passed by voters, the moratorium’s effective date would be retroactive to Tuesday, when the six-month ban began. That way, any application received between then and Nov. 4 would also be put on hold, preventing an applicant from slipping through that window before an ordinance can be crafted.

Board member Doug Taft recommended seeking out state and federal officials knowledgeable with the medical marijuana law who could assist or perhaps serve on the ordinance committee.

Peabody said the committee would need to keep in mind that the town can regulate medical marijuana dispensaries and cultivation sites, but “it cannot be more restrictive than what the state requires.”

In July, the Old Orchard Beach Town Council enacted a moratorium on the cultivation of medical marijuana in nonresidential facilities, after a local man proposed turning a former post office into a secure facility for up to four caregivers. In November, York residents will vote on proposed zoning ordinance changes that would create local zoning controls to regulate marijuana as a land use, restrict where growing and processing operations are allowed, and require a public approval process.

The York vote comes after a neighborhood group filed a lawsuit over plans to allow nine state-licensed caregivers to grow marijuana in separate units in a warehouse. State law bans small-scale caregivers from forming collectives for larger scale cultivation or distribution, but it does not prohibit multiple caregivers from growing marijuana in the same commercial facility.

 

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