Isaac Israel, left and Lee Mendelson, members of the town's Business Advisory Committee, with David Falkowski, a cannabis grower in Southampton, speaking with the Town Board at its June 1 work session. Photo: Alek Lewis

The Riverhead Town Board is split about whether to change its restrictive zoning laws for recreational marijuana businesses.

The town’s Business Advisory Committee and the committee’s liaison, Council Member Bob Kern, said during last week’s work session that the law should change to amend the requirement that recreational marijuana businesses be 1,000-feet away from any residential use. They said the zoning is too prohibitive for prospective recreational cannabis business owners and could violate the state’s Marihuana Regulation and Taxation Act. 

The discussion follows a Business Advisory Committee letter to the board in February asking the Town Board to adopt a revision to the code “in-line with [State Liquor Authority] regulations,” and an internal review by the town in April that found that recreational marijuana businesses can only be located at 36 properties in the entire town. A subsequent RiverheadLOCAL analysis of the 36 properties found that most of them were already developed, already have tenants or cannot house marijuana businesses under the confines of the local law. 

MORE COVERAGE: Most parcels on town’s list of sites eligible for cannabis uses under town code are already fully developed, analysis shows

Kern said there are only “two or three” parcels of land along Route 58, one of which is currently undeveloped, that could potentially be leased for a dispensary. Kern, who was part of an ad hoc committee led by Council Member Ken Rothwell to draft the town’s zoning regulations for marijuana dispensaries and lounges, said based on those conversations that the original intent of the code was “to drive everything to 58, away from downtown.” 

That was what town officials originally presented during a public hearing on the local zoning law in October, when prospective marijuana business owners and residents alike said the law was one of the friendliest on Long Island. The law was passed by the board 4-1, with Supervisor Yvette Aguiar in dissent. However, town officials misrepresented the text of the law during the hearing, presenting a map that did not accurately reflect the restriction requiring that businesses be 1,000-feet away from any residential use. 

MORE COVERAGE: Prospective marijuana business owners hail Riverhead zoning proposal for dispensaries and lounges as the friendliest on Long Island

“The business advisory committee requested to take a look at this code because there were people that were interested in opening a dispensary. But when they tried to map it out, they found that the places that they were able to open a dispensary was extraordinarily limited,” said Aquebogue attorney Lee Mendleson, a member of the committee.

In the February letter, the committee recommended 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 recommended 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.

Mendelson said he believes limiting the properties as much as the local law did was not the town’s intent in creating the code. Mendleson also said the town’s regulations “run afoul” of the state’s recreational marijuana law by increasing the distance requirements from schools and places of worship beyond what the law mandates.

Rothwell said the Business Advisory Committee’s presence at the board meeting was an attempt to change the zoning to benefit a specific property. The ad-hoc cannabis committee’s membership is “firm” about the adopted regulations and wanted to wait and see how many dispensaries are proposed in the town before they look to change the current law, Rothwell said.

“There are parcels that are available, and so we have researched that. So it’s not as though we have written legislation to not permit them anywhere,” Rothwell said, although he acknowledged that many of those properties have been leased. He said he doesn’t want the area to become “saturated” with recreational cannabis stores after leases expire.

Mendleson denied Rothwell’s assertion about the committee recommending a change to benefit a specific property. He said the town’s own analysis clearly shows the zoning severely limits the siting of marijuana business throughout the whole town.

Ike Israel of Richmond Realty, and a member of the Business Advisory Committee, said the map presented at the public hearing without the residential distance requirement allowed plenty of spaces for businesses while excluding the businesses from downtown Riverhead, which both committee and board members agreed was a priority.

The Marihuana Regulation and Taxation Act, which was signed into law in 2021, allows municipalities to opt-out of marijuana sales or allow them by default. An opt-out law failed to pass the Town Board 2-3 in 2021, with Rothwell and Aguiar dissenting. Municipalities who do not opt-out are allowed to adopt “time, place and manner” restrictions for the use, but the regulations cannot be “unreasonably impracticable” as determined by the Office of Cannabis Managment’s Cannabis Control Board.

In a statement, OCM Deputy Communications Director Aaron Ghitelman said an “unreasonably impracticable” determination of would “be based heavily on the circumstances and facts surrounding each ordinance or local law, but the crux of the review would center on whether the local cannabis zoning law creates an overly burdensome or unreasonable threshold for the licensed retailed dispensary or on-site consumption site to comply with, such that it impedes the operations of such licensed retail dispensary or on-site consumption location.”

The Cannabis Control Board has yet to determine any municipality’s zoning laws are “unreasonably impractical,” Ghitelman said. In regulations proposed by the Cannabis Control Board last month, a claimant file a challenge to the validity of a local law before it is reviewed by the board.

Town Attorney Erik Howard said the town has not been notified of any proposed recreational marijuana businesses within the town, but according to board members, there are people interested. Kern said he knew of one person interested in putting a business along Route 58, but they were denied by a landlord. Rothwell said he has received an email from a marijuana business’ representative asking for a meeting.

The applicant for an adult-use cannabis license is required to notify the board of the municipality they plan to locate the business in.

The work session ended with the issue unresolved. Kern said he would meet with Rothwell and GIS Administrator Jason Blizzard, who created the maps used to analyze the zoning, to determine how many properties that meet the zoning requirements for a recreational marijuana business.

Rothwell said in an interview that he would take the suggestions of decreasing the residential buffer to the Marijuana Advisory Committee. He said the committee needs to be consulted and give its recommendation to the board before any changes are made.

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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: