City, commission try to hash out retail pot rules

Courtesy graphic

ESCANABA — The Escanaba City Council met with the Escanaba Planning Commission earlier this week to hash out the future of commercial marijuana, but it is still unclear what changes, if any, will be made to the city’s marijuana rules.

As at past meetings, a significant amount of discussion Monday revolved around the Delta Plaza Mall and the Lincoln Road corridor. While there were residents that spoke out in opposition to legalized commercial marijuana prior to the city opting-in to the state law that allowed dispensaries to locate in the city, the majority of the push back came after a letter to the editor from county commissioner and Escanaba resident Dave Moyle was published in the Daily Press. The letter referenced a planned dispensary that was slated to be located in the former Hudson’s restaurant and threats from Hobby Lobby, located in the mall near the restaurant, to leave the city if the project moves forward.

As the planning commission cannot legally consider anything but the city’s code of ordinances when approving or denying a site plan or permit — including the threat from Hobby Lobby — the project at Hudson’s was conditionally approved by the city’s planning commission. It is unlikely to move forward, however, as the condition of permit was the developer acquiring an easement from the mall for an entrance, and Dial, which owns the mall, has indicated it will not grant the easement due to Hobby Lobby’s objections.

Moyle’s letter was published more than a month after the special use permit for the dispensary was conditionally approved, but it sparked a flood of phone calls from concerned residents to the city’s planning and zoning office, hampering the department’s ability to conduct regular business. At the request of the zoning administrator, the planning commission requested that the city council issue a moratorium on the city’s acceptance of applications for marijuana businesses.

Last week, the council held the first reading of an ordinance granting a three-month moratorium. The ordinance includes language that would back-date the start of the moratorium to Jan. 19 instead of the date the ordinance takes effect, functionally halting permits received after that point from being reviewed until at least Feb. 2, when the council will vote on whether or not to adopt the moratorium.

“If the moratorium passes it will have zero impact on currently accepted applications, including those that are causing issues right now,” Mayor Mark Ammel told those present Monday.

While the fate of the moratorium hinges on the council’s actions following a public hearing at the Feb. 2 council meeting, the two boards laid out areas that should be reviewed in the city’s marijuana ordinance, with special focus on the marijuana zoning ordinance used by the planning commission when granting permits.

Planning and Zoning Administrator Tyler Anthony noted one of his primary concerns was overlap in building materials and structure requirements between the marijuana zoning rules and the rules contained elsewhere in the zoning ordinance for other buildings.

“If we enforced that, it would cause noncompliance with another section, and if we enforced that section, it would cause nonconformance with the other section,” said Anthony of one of the rules included in the ordinance.

Anthony did not go into great detail as to other specific redundancies would need addressing if the moratorium were to go into place and the city could revamp the ordinance. However, the council and planning commission formulated a lengthy list of other ways the ordinance should be reviewed.

It is unlikely that all of the suggestions made Monday will move forward to ultimately become law in the city — largely because some of the suggestions addressed the same problem multiple ways — but the two boards did formulate a list of tasks for the planning commission.

One task is to develop a proposal for buffer zones between commercial marijuana stores. The idea is that a larger distance between stores would reduce traffic congestion and prevent any one area from suffering any of the negative effects residents attributed to the stores.

Council Member Karen Moore identified the buffers between stores as one of the key areas the planning commission should focus on. Council Member Tyler DuBord, on the other hand, argued it went against the free-market principles that guided the current ordinance.

The planning commission was also tasked with creating buffer zones around anywhere there may be children — K-12 schools, daycare centers, libraries, Bay College, churches, and public playgrounds.

Currently, there are only 750-foot buffers around K-12 schools, which is less than the state’s default limit of 1,000-feet used when a community opts-in to commercialized marijuana but does not set its own regulations.

Moore also suggested reintroducing a 100-foot buffer around single-family residences that was removed from properties in the downtown E-3 Commercial zoning district. The removal of the buffer has not affected the outcome of any proposed dispensaries thus far, and was removed due to the large number of homes just off Ludington Street.

Currently, the 100-foot buffer is still in place around single-family homes in all other zoning districts.

Including all of the proposed buffers could be problematic for the city, if it results in a functional limit on the number of marijuana stores that can locate in the city the same way a numerical cap would.

Capping the number of marijuana businesses is legal but risky. Communities with caps must have rules in place to ensure that applications are considered fairly and the majority of litigation against cities related to marijuana has been from rejected businesses who claimed they were discriminated against. The city’s attorney, Laura Genovich, who attended the meeting virtually, warned that if the council’s rules were too restrictive and only allowed a small number of acceptable parcels, the city could face lawsuits because of the de facto cap.

The planning commission was also asked to develop a potential overlay district. Overlay districts are, functionally, a second map that is used to identify areas were special zoning characteristics or uses are permitted regardless of what zoning the underly parcels have.

“I think it’s work mentioning that originally, in our work session, the discussion was to have an overlay of just North Lincoln Road, which is kind of ironic considering that’s where most of them are going and now we’re having a problem with it and originally that was the idea,” said Planning Commission Chair James Hellerman.

It is unclear where the planning commission might suggest an overlay district moving forward.

The planning commission was also tasked with communicating with the Michigan Department of Transportation and the city’s public works department for more detailed information about existing traffic patterns. It was noted that, while marijuana dispensaries do increase traffic, the information would become less useful as more dispensaries moved to the city and drew business away from each other.Xxx


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