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Residents and prospective marijuana entrepreneurs applauded the Riverhead Town Board’s proposed zoning code for marijuana businesses as retail sales are poised to get underway, with one speaker calling it the most “progressive” of its kind and most friendly to the emerging industry on Long Island.

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

Some speakers said the distance requirements went too far.

Due to the distance requirements, the most commercial space for marijuana business would be located along stretches of the Route 58 commercial corridor and would be prohibited downtown. 

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. 

Riverhead’s code requires that marijuana businesses be 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 the Long Island Aquarium, Splish Splash and East End Arts.) In addition to the 1,000-foot setback from residential uses, the businesses cannot also be located within a mixed-use development containing a residential use, or within 2,500 feet of another marijuana business.

Most of the proposed code came out of conversations at three public forums held by an ad-hoc committee led by Council Member Ken 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 process has been praised by both community members and board members, and was praised again during the hearing.

“I think that overall, this is a really balanced legislation that comes into place that protects the public, but also makes cannabis readily available through retail sales locations and consumption lounges,” Rothwell said at the start of the hearing.

Last year, Rothwell and Supervisor Yvette Aguiar were in the minority in a failed vote to opt out of cannabis sales in the town. Council Member Frank Beyrodt, Council Member Tim Hubbard and former-Council Member Catherine Kent vote against opting out, citing the revenue allowing sales in the town can bring and public support for the stores in an online survey distributed by Town Officials.

Mike Foley of Riverhead, a user of marijuana, thanked the previous Town Board for allowing marijuana sales in Riverhead. He said the town could be the “most attractive town in retail and cannabis cafes” in the area. 

The East End is primed to be a premier location for many of the dispensaries on Long Island. The towns of Riverhead, Southampton and Brookhaven are three of the four towns on Long Island where the businesses will be allowed, at least initially, according to a tally compiled by the Long Island Press. The rest of municipalities opted out. Municipalities that opted out can pass a law to allow the use at a later date, but the chance to opt-out ended Dec. 31, 2021.

The Long Island region will receive 20 of the 150 licenses that the Office of Cannabis Management has announced it will grant to for-profit businesses throughout the state.

“Certainly, this legislation is not perfect. But perfect should not be the enemy of the good. This is a good piece of legislation,” Foley said. He criticized some elements of the legislation, including the distance restrictions from daycare facilities.

Towns that allow marijuana businesses receive 3% of the 13% sales tax on products sold in the town and Foley proposed using the added revenue for bolstering the town’s security, local school programs and drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs. 

Several prospective marijuana business owners also spoke at the hearing in addition to residents. But while Foley expressed hopes that Riverhead would be a marijuana hot spot in the region, the prospective business owners said that if the zoning proposal is adopted, it is almost assured.

“This is going to change the face of what it’s like to go out east,” said Brian Plona of Rocky Point, a prospective marijuana business owner. “We go out east now to go to wineries. to go to farm stands. to go pick up a pie, it’s the same difference.”

Plona said Riverhead’s zoning will make it a “cannabis destination.” He said the industry will end up benefiting the town overall, and that delivery services from marijuana retailers to customers out of town where sales are prohibited will further drive sales from the stores.

“I commend the board for the forethought for the zoning, because it is the most progressive that it is,” Plona said.

Jack Sheehan of East Moriches said he is glad that Riverhead is not “banishing” the stores to industrial areas, like Brookhaven Town has done.

“It’s a big deal,” Sheehan said. “And the other towns that we have spoken to, they are sending them to the industrial districts. So you really are the town that is going to be the proving ground of how it looks with these retails.” 

Sheehan said he hopes the Town Board will be open to allowing marijuana businesses closer to downtown in the future. 

Anthony DeVincenzo, the secretary of the Long Island chapter of the Cannabis Association of New York, also applauded the town’s legislation, but said a part of the code prohibiting food service in consumption establishments would be a detriment to businesses and perhaps put the safety of people at risk.

“This may come from some inexperience from the board, but when you use cannabis, your stomach becomes very engaged in the experience and you become hungry,” DeVincenzo said. 

“The munchies,” Aguiar said.

“Yeah. What you don’t want people doing is driving stoned. So why would we put people in a situation where they can get stoned and get hungry, but then cannot satiate that feeling inside of that same establishment?,” DeVincenzo said. “I could understand not wanting to medicate certain types of foods so that there’s a easier way for people to regulate the intake of cannabinoids and therefore not get kind of too messed up, but I think that there is a mistake there and not allowing people to have some french fries or a pretzel or anything like that while they are consuming cannabis.”

Ike Israel, the associate broker of Richmond Realty Corp, took issue with a part of the proposed code that prohibits marijuana businesses within 1,000 feet of an existing residential use. He said that could complicate stores going into some commercial areas in the town, even along Route 58, if they’re near residential developments. 

Israel asked if the maps the town used for the setbacks took the distance from residential uses into account. Although during the meeting town officials said the map did reflect the 1,000-foot buffer from residential uses, Principal Engineering Aide Jason Blizzard, who created the maps, confirmed in a phone call Thursday that they did not. He said integrating that into the map was originally discussed, but the number of residential parcels would make it too difficult and impede other functions of the map, like displaying zoning.

“That would always be something that when things start getting established, and people look for licensure to start selling, or whatever it might be, that would then fall back, probably back on me, to then look at the parcels and determine exactly where those buffers fall,” Blizzard said.

The 1,000-foot setback was not a restriction agreed upon during the marijuana forums in Town Hall, and only appeared after the legislation was drafted. Rothwell said in an interview on Thursday that the 1,000-foot buffer was made so that residents “wouldn’t suffer at the hands of having a highly activated location next to them.”

“The discussion was an effort to protect private residence homes. Because I think, I believe, that it’s going to be very popular,” Rothwell said. “And so having the distance from them was just a way of protecting those, the individual homeowners, so that their lifestyle, their things wouldn’t be impeded upon a new retail shop or consumption shop, or whatever it may be, close to them.”

Rothwell said the Town Board can always loosen the restrictions if the 1,000-foot buffer becomes too cumbersome for prospective businesses. 

The idea of the board amending the legislation in the future was raised by board members during the hearing when some speakers brought up a topic not addressed in the current draft of the legislation: micro-cultivation businesses, where cannabis is grown, processed and sold by a single business. 

Currently, the Cannabis Control Board has not proposed any regulations concerning permits relating to micro-cultivation businesses, although the businesses are mentioned in the Marihuana Regulation and Taxation Act.

Speakers also urged the Town Board to keep their finger on the pulse of the rapidly developing industry and change its laws as needed in the future.

Rothwell said the town would hold another marijuana forum to address any gaps in the legislation and to assess down the road whether adopted legislation is working or needs to be amended.

Under the proposed code, marijuana businesses would be allowed in the 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 — subject to the minimum distance requirements from homes, places of worship, parks and playgrounds and other family-friendly places.

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 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 sale and consumption of marijuana through smoking or edibles on-site.

The Office of Cannabis Management opened license applications for the first dispensaries in late August. The first licenses will be given to businesses majority-owned and run by “justice involved” individuals, or people that have been convicted of marijuana-related offenses in New York State, and their close relatives. 

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.

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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