The town should change its recently adopted rules governing where marijuana businesses can locate because they’re too restrictive, according to the Riverhead Business Advisory Committee.
According to a town document distributed to officials this week, there are only 36 properties in the entire town where recreational marijuana businesses can locate, mostly because of restrictive zoning requirements passed by the Town Board last year. The zoning does not allow those businesses to locate near certain land uses, including residences.
“When you start talking about three football fields plus between any residence and a whole bunch of different things, you basically eliminate any possibility of setting up a dispensary anywhere that’s reasonable,” Business Advisory Committee member Lee Mendelson said during a committee meeting at Town Hall yesterday. Mendelson has experience in the industry, as cofounder, manager and general counsel of a cannabis testing lab in Orange County.
“Basically, there is no place to do it,” Council Member Bob Kern said.
The marijuana code adopted by the Town Board in November require recreational marijuana businesses to be a minimum distance of 1,000 feet from schools, day care facilities, residential uses and libraries, as well as at least 500 feet from places of worship, beaches, parks, community centers and entertainment businesses and organizations. Most of the recommendations came out of three public forums held by an ad-hoc committee led by Council Member Ken Rothwell.
But a map presented to the public during the hearing on the proposed law did not accurately depict the totality of the code’s restrictions. The accurate map misled people who spoke at the hearing and hailed the zoning proposal as some of the friendliest to the emerging industry on Long Island.
Though town officials said during the hearing the map accurately depicted all restrictions, including the minimum distance from residences, both Rothwell and the town’s GIS administrator, Jason Blizzard, confirmed in a post-hearing interview that the map was inaccurate. Blizzard said at the time that the number of residential parcels within the town would be too difficult to put on the map and that the residential distance restriction would be looked at as marijuana businesses begin inquiring with the town for sites.
The Town Board adopted the law establishing the restrictions 4-1, with Supervisor Yvette Aguiar opposed. The map’s inaccuracy was not mentioned.
An email to town officials on Monday sent by Blizzard and obtained by RiverheadLOCAL included the list of the 36 properties and a new map made by Blizzard. The map depicts eligible parcels for the marijuana businesses by applying a 1,000-foot buffer between land zoned to allow residential uses and land that allows retail or on-site consumption uses. The list and map does not factor in residential uses within the town that do not conform to current zoning, creating the potential for permissible locations to be even more restricted.
The map displayed during the public hearing, which factors in buffers for other uses like schools, parks and places of worship, appeared to show that marijuana businesses would be limited primarily to commercial space along Route 58. The map distributed to town officials this week shows the zoning code effectively eliminates any availability along Route 58.
The Business Advisory Committee, in a Feb. 15 letter to the Town Board, asked the Town Board to adopt a revision to the code “in-line with [State Liquor Authority] regulations,” which would allow the “opening of stores while still offering protections and limits on the ability to open facilities close to schools and places of worship.”
The current code is “overly restrictive and practically regulate dispensaries or on-site consumption places out of the majority of Riverhead,” the committee wrote. The advisory committee’s revision would also be more likely to survive legal scrutiny, the letter states.
A draft code attached to the letter recommends the 1,000-foot buffer only be applied to schools, and that library and daycare facilities, which currently also have the 1,000-foot buffer, have their buffers reduced to 200-feet. The committee also recommends reducing the buffer for places of worship from 500-feet to 200-feet, and the buffer between marijuana businesses from 2,500-feet to 1,000-feet.
The letter also recommends the residential buffer be changed from 1,000-feet to 200-feet, and be measured from the entrance of a retail store to the nearest entrance of the residential building. The current code measures the buffer from the property line.
Rothwell, who said in a phone call today that he has yet to look at the map presented by Blizzard, reserved judgment as to whether the zoning is too restrictive, as the Business Advisory Committee said.
“I think from their perspective, they’re [the Business Advisory Committee] looking at ‘okay, where can we open? Where can we operate and run businesses?’ But we have to approach this very, very carefully,” Rothwell said. And I’m going to stand by the work of the cannabis committee and I’m going to rely on them to be the decision making committee in terms of providing me with their thoughts and their studies.”
Rothwell said he has forwarded the Business Advisory Committee’s recommendations to the Marijuana Advisory Committee, which includes representatives from the anti-drug Riverhead Community Awareness Program, Riverhead Central School District and civic groups.
“Legally, we have to have availability in our town because we did not opt out. So we can’t create legislation that shuts everything out across the town. That wouldn’t be fair, and that was not the goal of it,” Rothwell said.
The council member said he would not support any changes to the adopted code without going through the Marijuana Advisory Committee.
The recommendations from the marijuana advisory group were finalized in March 2022, but did not include the 1,000-foot buffer from residential uses. The residential use buffer appeared in a draft of the code presented in a Town Board work session months after the conversations concluded.
Rothwell said in a previous interview that the residential buffer was “an effort to protect private residence homes.”
The Cannabis Control Board, the governing body of the New York State regulatory body for marijuana, originally said it would grant 20 out of the first 150 conditional dispensary licenses to businesses on Long Island. That number has since doubled to 40. It is not clear whether any of the licenses that have been granted to businesses on Long Island will be sited in Riverhead.
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