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A public hearing on a proposed code to regulate retail marijuana shops and lounges in Riverhead is slated for Oct. 18, Councilman Ken Rothwell said Friday. The Town Board is expected to act on the resolution Wednesday to schedule the public hearing.

According to a draft of the code released last week, marijuana dispensaries and lounges licensed by the state would be allowed in most commercial zoning use districts that allow retail uses, subject to minimum distance requirements to prevent the businesses from locating near schools and other family-friendly places.

Those districts include including Business Center, Shopping Center, Destination Retail Center, Rural Corridor, Downtown Center 1, 2 and 3, Hamlet Center, Village Center, Peconic River Community and Business F zoning use districts.

The code would require a minimum distance of 1,000 feet from schools, daycare facilities and libraries, as well as 500 feet from places of worship, beaches, parks, community centers and amusement businesses (such as Long Island Aquarium, Splish Splash and East End Arts.)

Marijuana businesses would also not be allowed within 1,000 feet of an existing residential use or a mixed-use development containing a residential use, or within 2,500 feet of another marijuana business, according to the draft.

The draft code does not make a distinction between dispensaries and lounges as a use. Dispensaries are where retail sales are conducted, while lounges typically allow for the consumption of marijuana through smoking or edibles on-site.

Additionally, the proposed code outlines security requirements, mandating the business to submit both a security plan and an odor management plan to the town. The law would also require all employees working in a marijuana business be over 21 years old. 

Retail establishments would be allowed to operate during hours similar to liquor stores: from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 9 a.m. to 10 p.m Friday and Saturday; and on Sunday from 12 to 9 p.m.. On-site consumption establishments would be allowed to operate from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 10 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday (with sales and service of cannabis products until 11 p.m.); and on Sunday from 12 to 9 p.m.. 

The state law enacted last year legalizing recreational marijuana use, cultivation and sales in New York grants municipalities the power to regulate the “time, place and manner” of marijuana businesses.

The state has not yet granted any licenses for dispensaries or lounges. The state Office of Cannabis Management began accepting retail dispensary license applications on Aug. 25. The licenses are available to businesses majority-owned and run by “justice involved” individuals, or people convicted of marijuana-related offenses in New York State, and their close relatives. 

The Long Island region will receive 20 of the 150 licenses granted to for-profit businesses throughout the state.

The East End is primed to be a premier location for many of the dispensaries on Long Island, as the towns of Riverhead, Southampton and Brookhaven are three of the four towns on Long Island — which has 13 towns and two cities — where the businesses will be allowed, at least initially, according to a tally compiled by the Long Island Press.  The rest of municipalities on Long Island took advantage of the right to opt-out of allowing retail sales/use granted in the enabling legislation. The municipalities that opted out can pass a law to allow the use at a later dates, but the chance to opt-out ended Dec. 31, 2021.

Nonprofit organizations or businesses owned by a nonprofit can also apply for a license if it is a 501(c)(3) entity, has “a history of creating vocational opportunities for current or formerly incarcerated individuals, including justice involved individuals,” has a justice involved individual in its governing staff, and other criteria. Around 25 licenses will be distributed to nonprofits statewide in addition to the 150 being distributed to for-profit businesses.

[See prior coverage: Applications for first recreational marijuana dispensary licenses now being accepted; Long Island set to receive 20 licenses]

The resolution scheduling the Oct. 18 public hearing was not in the packet of resolutions distributed for discussion at the Town Board work session Thursday in advance the upcoming regular meeting Wednesday at 2 p.m. Board members discusses it at the work session and agreed to move forward with the measure. It will be added to the agenda for Wednesday’s meeting Rothwell said in a phone interview Friday. 

[See prior coverage: Marijuana advisory group finalizes recommendations for locations of marijuana businesses in Riverhead]

Most of the proposed code came out of conversations at three public forums held by ad-hoc committee led by Rothwell, along with Deputy Town Attorney Annemarie Prudenti, who drafted the legislation. Business leaders, community stakeholders, prospective licensees and members of the public attended the forums.

The draft code approved for a public hearing differed from the draft the committee recommended to add a provision setting a minimum distance from residential uses and to require the marijuana uses be no less than 2,500 feet apart.

Rothwell said Friday that the 1,000-foot setback from residential uses was discussed during the forum.

“We did discuss about certain people feeling like their homes were next door to commercial properties and it would be unfair,” he said.

Distance from residential uses was discussed, but not agreed upon at the third marijuana forum. Brookhaven Town has prohibited marijuana businesses 500 feet from residential uses.

The committee did not discuss saturation limits and left that decision up to the Town Board at the end of the last meeting. Town officials thought the 2,500 foot minimum distance between marijuana businesses was a good starting point and would allow businesses to be spread throughout the town, Rothwell said, since they aren’t sure how many businesses in Riverhead may receive licenses.

At Thursday’s work session, Councilman Bob Kern took issue with the 2,500 foot minimum distance requirement.

“I’m not certain whether that’s good or bad at this particular point in, you know, with how it’s sold, whether that works or doesn’t work, I don’t know,” Kern said.

“I think it just prevents a strip of facilities in a row,” Rothwell said.

“That would be like, preventing, you know, multiple restaurants serving alcohol,” Kern said.

“Or a liquor store from a restaurant, saying that a liquor store has to be 2,500 feet from a place that serves alcohol,” Councilman Tim Hubbard said.

“I think you have to start somewhere, though, and you have to get it on the books,” Prudenti said. “And like we talked about, you may very well want to amend it. You may want to reduce that restriction. Or you may want to eliminate it from a particular zone. But you know, it all depends. I mean, every commercial development has impacts to its community where it’s located. Traffic, security, a whole facet…”

Supervisor Yvette Aguiar interrupted Prudenti: “There’s nothing on the books for enforcement if somebody decides to open up a store and sell marijuana. Police is not trained for that,” said Aguiar, a former NYPD detective. “We have no guidance from the state. I’ve been trying to get some type of guidance, it is a lot of work to be done.”

“But you have to be licensed by the state. The same way with the SLA, you just can’t open up a marijuana facility, cannabis facility,” Kern said. “If you’re not licensed, it’s like opening up a bar and you’re not licensed, you’re going to get shut down.”

“I just don’t want to be as dysfunctional as the state, you know what I’m saying?” Kern continued. “But I do think that this is a, you know, a good starting point. And if we — if the market says, you know what, it has to expand, let’s expand it. My concern is: I would much prefer, if I’m a parent of a kid that’s smoking pot, right, that they get it someplace legal, and not buy it off the street, which may have fentanyl in it.”

“As long as your kid is 21,” Rothwell said.

“I just want to circle back to the enforcement,” Aguiar said. “We don’t have any codes, or if somebody decides illegally to sell from a smoke shop that exists, currently exists, to sell some marijuana, what code do we write, you know?”

The Office of Cannabis Management identified 52 unlicensed merchants allegedly conducting illegal marijuana sales in New York City and issued cease-and-desist letters, warning them they could face penalties for their businesses and criminal charges, according to a New York Post report.

“You would be in violation of the state licensing laws,” Hubbard, a former Riverhead police detective, said.

“Of course, but there’s no code. There’s no code for the officer to write on the summons,” Aguiar said.

Other board members interjected. “It’s just like opening a bar with a license. We wouldn’t have a town code for that, it’s a state law. It’s governed by the state,” Hubbard said.

“Right, and that law states alcohol, right?,” Aguiar said. “So it’ll say illegal sale of alcohol. We don’t have anything that says illegal sale of marijuana. And that’s coming down a lot. So we need to have some type of — eventually the state will have some type of code, so if somebody illegally sells marijuana, this is the substantive issue. This is the code.” 

Under state law it is illegal to sell marijuana — and will remain so for unlicensed individuals and businesses. The sale of less than 25 grams of marijuana is a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and a maximum fine of $1,000. The sale of 25 grams or more is a felony with larger penalties based on how much is sold. Additional penalties apply if the drug is sold to a minor.

Prudenti said the town code already addresses some of the concerns expressed by the board. For example, a business illegally operating without site plan approval makes them in violation of the code, she said.

Other than those comments, board members talked little about the zoning proposal and agreed to move on with scheduling a public hearing.

Riverhead has been gearing up for the drop of adult-use retail dispensary licenses, after a vote to opt-out of retail dispensaries failed last year 2-3, with Aguiar and Rothwell supporting opting out, and Councilman Frank Beyrodt, Hubbard and former-Councilwoman Catherine Kent in dissent, citing the tax revenue the businesses could bring to the town. 

The Town Board in June amended the town code to ban marijuana use at town parks and buildings, and to extend all smoking bans to include town-approved special events. The amendment also raised fines for violations of the law.

Read the full text of the proposed code amendment here: Riverheadmarijuanacodedraft090122

Editors note 9/7/22 1 p.m.: This article was amended to include a PDF copy of the draft of the code presented to the Town Board at its work session on Sept. 1.

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Email: alek@riverheadlocal.com