Stock photo.

Riverhead is moving forward with a Sept. 16 public hearing on a proposed moratorium that would prevent a medical marijuana dispensary anywhere in the Town of Riverhead.

The board yesterday rejected pleas for delay by representatives of Columbia Care NY, the company planning to site the facility on Route 58 and voted unanimously to schedule the pubic hearing.

At the same time, the board agreed to meet with company representatives during this Thursday’s work session to discuss board members’ concerns about the proposed location.

While Supervisor Sean Walter has said he’s opposed to a medical marijuana dispensary anywhere in town, because he believes legalizing medical marijuana is just the “incremental legalization” of marijuana for recreational use, other board members say they are not opposed to a dispensary in Riverhead but don’t think the selected location is appropriate.

Councilman John Dunleavy raised traffic concerns, noting that the exit from the parking lot of the site — the former Blockbuster Video location — is right-turn only on a very heavily traveled five-lane roadway.

“If we get a better location for this, we’ll be happy to have medical marijuana in Riverhead,” Dunleavy said.

“Well I’m not so sure about that,” Councilman James Wooten interjected. “But this is only calling for a public hearing. There’s a lot of unknowns.”

Councilman George Gabrielsen was perturbed that the company didn’t come to the town to discuss its plans prior to making application to the state health department in June. The councilman says the company should have come to the town before picking the spot, which he believes is wrong because, among other things, it’s 589 feet from school district property.

Columbia Care founder and CEO Nicholas Vita asked the Riverhead Town Board to hold off on a moratorium to give the company a chance to meet with town officials. Photo: Denise Civiletti
Columbia Care founder and CEO Nicholas Vita asked the Riverhead Town Board to hold off on a moratorium to give the company a chance to meet with town officials. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Columbia Care CEO and founder Nicholas Vita acknowledged the company chose the site in early May, about a month before filing its application with the state on June 5.

Each applicant for one of the five medical marijuana licenses issued by New York was required to propose a site for growing the plants and producing marijuana in forms authorized for sale in New York — where the law limits medical marijuana to non-smokable forms only, i.e. pills and liquid. Columbia Care will grow the plants and manufacture the drug for medicinal sale at a 204,000-square-foot agricultural facility in the Eastman Business Park in Rochester.

Each applicant also had to select four dispensary locations. Columbia Care chose Rochester, Plattsburgh, Manhattan and Riverhead. Another one of the five registered growers, Bloomfield Industries of Staten Island, will site a facility in Nassau County. Those two will be the only dispensaries on Long Island.

Vita said the company considered Riverhead “a very good access point for the patients of eastern Long Island.”

“We selected the site based on setback requirements required by the state, which this facility complies with, and zoning,” Vita said. “This is a pharmacy in the eyes of the state. It’s managed by pharmacists.”

The former Blockbuster Video site, located on Route 58 across from Target, is currently vacant. Photo: Peter Blasl
Columbia Care gained approval from the state health department to site a medical marijuana facility at the vacant former Blockbuster Video site on Route 58. Photo: Peter Blasl

“We don’t all agree it’s a pharmacy,” Walter said. “It’s not a pharmacy – if it were, it would be called that. It’s a medical marijuana dispensary.”

Vita urged the board to meet with him and other company representatives and allow them the opportunity to discuss their experience in other markets across the country. Columbia Care already operates in Massachusetts, Arizona, Illinois and Washington, D.C., he said.

“We can answer your questions in an unemotional, statistical manner,” Vita said.

“Our facilities nationwide are available to your scrutiny,” he said offering to schedule visits for town officials at one of them. “We pride ourselves on being good corporate citizens.”

Columbia Care attorney David Gilmartin told the board it faces legal obstacles if it proceeds with a moratorium.

“The state has established this use,” Gilmartin said. “In passing the Compassionate Care Act, the state legislated in this field. You’re going to run into some pre-emption issues.”

At a work session last month, town attorney Robert Kozakiewicz told the board in his opinion, the town would not be blocked by the state from regulating where a dispensary can be sited, because the state law does not contain “any pre-emptive language.”

Gilmartin, a former Southampton town attorney, also said the town faces a legal problem with a moratorium where it puts “all the burden of a moratorium on one property owner,” which is what it would be doing with the moratorium being proposed.

As a practical matter, he said, the moratorium will be “extraordinarily detrimental to meeting our deadlines with the state.”

At the suggestion of Councilwoman Jodi Giglio, the board agreed to meet with the applicant and its attorney during a board work session. Vita and Gilmartin agreed to make it this Thursday, since they want to meet with the board before the public hearing.

“We’re just asking you not to rush to judgment,” Gilmartin said.

Before the board voted, Democratic town council candidate Neil Krupnick of Northville questioned why it would move forward with a moratorium without first meeting with the applicants face to face, “when they will be here Thursday to answer questions and put aside any fears you have.”

“The purpose of a moratorium is a time out for the town to amend its zoning code, amend its master plan because something is happening,” the supervisor replied.

The master plan amendment and the zoning code changes currently being contemplated by the town to ban medical marijuana dispensaries in some zoning use districts require public hearings by the town as well as a public hearing by the county planning commission, Walter said.

“Six months would be breakneck speed,” Walter said, in defense of the decision to propose a one-year moratorium instead of six months, as initially discussed.

“If we have a meeting with them and agree on an alternative location and, as we’re moving forward to amend the master plan and the zoning, we might lift the moratorium so they can move ahead,” the supervisor said.

“I’m concerned about the impacts it may have on the town,” Giglio said, “and whether the town will be compensated for those impacts.”

“We can’t even address that in the moratorium,” Walter responded. “That would require an amendment to the state legislation. I haven’t researched this out, but that legislation presupposes the county gets the compensation I’m thinking for police services and things like that was what was in the legislators’ minds.”

“Maybe a deal can be struck with Columbia Care as well,” Krupnick suggested. “They obviously want to come here,” he said.

“Where they failed miserably is they should have come to us two months ago,” Gabrielsen replied. “They’ve created their own crisis. They should have come to us before making their application to site a facility in our town.”

The public hearing on a proposed moratorium was set for Tuesday, Sept. 16 at 7:15 p.m.

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.