Is moratorium on Esky pot sales on horizon?

ESCANABA — The Escanaba City Council took steps Thursday that could result in the city pausing its acceptance of applications for adult-use marijuana businesses, but it is unclear if the council actually supports moving forward with a moratorium.

Much of the discussion Thursday revolved around the public’s seemingly delayed response to the city’s decision to allow commercial marijuana establishments within its borders. The decision to opt-in to the state law allowing commercial marijuana was made in April of 2022, and following months of work by both the city’s planning commission and city council to develop and approve the necessary city ordinances, the city began accepting applications in October of last year.

It wasn’t until late December that the public outcry began. The first phone call received by the city about marijuana was made on Dec. 27, and by Jan. 11 the city had received 79 calls and three letters about the issue.

“It happened to coincide with a letter to the editor placed in the newspaper by a concerned citizen,” said City Planning and Zoning Administrator Tyler Anthony.

The letter in question, which was published on Dec. 23, was written by city resident and Delta County Commissioner Dave Moyle about threats made by craft giant Hobby Lobby to pull out of the Delta Plaza Mall if a proposed dispensary was allowed to located in the former Hudson’s building.

“If you like the direction the mall has gone you need to put your foot in the backside of your council person and demand accountability. We need Hobby Lobby to stay in this community,” Moyle wrote in the letter, which encouraged the residents to call members of the city council directly.

The proposed development at Hudson’s had been conditionally approved on Nov. 11, but is unlikely to move forward. The property lacks a legal entrance and would require an easement for access through the mall property or to have an entrance installed before it would meet the conditions set by the planning commission. With Hobby Lobby’s objections to the development, the mall has no incentive to provide an easement and the Michigan Department of Transportation is unlikely to engineer an entrance to the property due to the surrounding traffic patterns.

Mayor Mark Ammel was quick to point out that, like Moyle’s letter, all notices about the proposed ordinances and public hearings on the issue were published in the Daily Press.

“All of the public had exactly the same amount of access to all of these ordinances, all of the scheduled hearing information as they did to that letter to the editor, correct? So no one was disenfranchised from information about coming to hearings and voicing their options during the process, correct? It sounds as though a bit of fury was whipped up,” said Ammel.

Council Member Karen Moore — who, with Council Member Ron Beauchamp, was one of the two council members that initially voted against opting-in to commercial marijuana in the city last April — made a series of statements in support of the moratorium, but claimed the public outcry was more the result of residents becoming aware of retail marijuana than anything in Moyle’s letter. She claimed that Dial, which owns the mall, would not be giving an easement to any businesses seeking to locate in the old Hudson’s restaurant and that the issue was not related to marijuana.

“It’s they don’t want to give up their parking space for their tenants and they’re going to fight for their tenants. It’s like if you have a two car driveway and your neighbor parks there. You’re not going to allow them because you’re not going to have room for your car,” she said, citing a conversation she had with the mall’s management.

Regardless of any conversations Moore may have had, the fact marijuana was the primary driving issue for the mall has been repeatedly stated by Dial and Hobby Lobby, both of which have also objected to a planned dispensary in the former Sayklly’s building. Besides the fact the Hudson’s restaurant had been allowed to use the mall parking lot as an access, it was discovered during the site plan process for the proposed dispensary that many of the parking spaces previously reserved for the restaurant actually overlapped with Dial’s lot.

The parking issue was not considered by the planning commission during its review of the site plan for the dispensary, as the city eliminated its parking requirements for commercial businesses last year. However, if it is true that Dial will be blocking any development at the site by refusing to grant an easement moving forward, Ammel noted the public’s fight to keep Hobby Lobby in the city may not be relevant to the discussion about marijuana.

“If I understand what you just explained very clearly, correctly, this isn’t actually a concern about marijuana establishment at all. This is a property dispute between a land owner and another land owner, in which case, perhaps council shouldn’t be considering any action at all, because it’s none of our business to be in the middle of a dispute between two property owners,” he said.

Moore also claimed Thursday that the request for the moratorium by the planning commission was the result of the public input at the planning commission meeting held Jan. 12. According to newly-hired City Manager Jim McNeil, who spoke with the Daily Press prior to the planning commission meeting, a discussion of the moratorium was already planned for the meeting. The request for the planning commission to seek the council’s approval of the moratorium came from the city’s administration after the planning and zoning department received 38 phone calls on the issue in a single day, crippling the department’s ability to conduct regular business.

After much discussion and a closed session with the city’s new attorney, Laura Genovich — who had previously served as the city’s counsel for commercial marijuana issues — the council approved the first reading of an ordinance that will place a moratorium on the acceptance or processing of marijuana establishments for three months. A last-minute addition to the ordinance specifies that the moratorium does not apply to applicants whose applications were received on or before Jan. 19, the date of Thursday’s meeting. This will allow two sitting applications to still be reviewed.

Because Thursday’s meeting was only a first reading, the ordinance cannot be adopted until after a public hearing is held on Feb. 2, and it won’t take effect until 10 days after its publication in the Daily Press, there was some concern from the council about the added language. It was determined that the language was acceptable because any new applicants can be informed their applications will only be accepted if the ordinance fails to pass.

Approving the first reading of the ordinance was not universally popular, however. Council Member Todd Flath voted against moving forward with the ordinance. During the discussion of the moratorium, DuBord also expressed reservations about a moratorium but ultimately voted with the rest of the council in the approval of the first reading.

It was also decided Thursday that the council will comply with the planning commission’s request for a joint work session meeting, which is scheduled for Jan. 23 at 4 p.m. How the two boards will approach the meeting may be different, however, as the planning commission initially requested the meeting to discuss possible changes to the city’s two ordinances regulating commercial marijuana. Multiple members of the council expressed it would be an appropriate time to discuss whether or not the moratorium was necessary.Xxxx


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