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Two recreational marijuana dispensaries may soon open in the Town of Riverhead. But other licensees looking to set up shop within the town — one of only four municipalities on Long Island that allow adult-use sales — remain hindered by restrictive zoning.

Columbia Care, the medical marijuana dispensary that opened in 2016 at 1333 East Main Street in Riverhead, is seeking to offer recreational products in addition to medical products, according to correspondence received by Riverhead Town officials.

Benjamin Alpert, who received a conditional adult-use retail dispensary license from the Office of Cannabis Management, is seeking to establish The Green House LI at a newly built, vacant commercial site at 1871 Old Country Road, according to a notification received by town officials.

But both businesses are outliers. The town’s restrictive zoning law, which allows only five parcels of land within the whole township to be used as sites for recreational marijuana dispensaries, has resulted in the town objecting to seven other licensees who noticed the town, and caused at least one to abandon plans to do business in the town altogether. 

Licensees looking to open up shop in a particular location must notify that municipality’s government, giving it a chance to comment to the state Office of Cannabis Management on the proposed location and object to the site. 

The Green House LI’s site, located on the corner of Route 58 and Kroemer Avenue, is one of the few properties in Riverhead that can house a marijuana shop under the zoning restrictions, which allows dispensaries in business districts but prohibits them within certain distances from certain other uses “measured from the nearest property lines of each of the affected parcels.” The most restrictive setback requirement is for residential uses at 1,000 feet. 

Alpert, who received his license in April, sent the required notice to the town about siting a dispensary at the vacant commercial building on Oct. 1, according to a copy of the letter received through a Freedom of Information Law request. The proposed location was the only one that Community Development Director Dawn Thomas, currently the head of the town’s building and planning departments, wrote to the OCM was in conformity with the requirements of the Riverhead Town code. Alpert did not immediately return a call requesting comment.

Columbia Care’s siting is more complicated. The company says in a letter accompanying the notice that it is exempt from the provisions of Riverhead’s zoning for cannabis businesses. The company says that it is a “registered organization with dispensing” business — one which maintains vertically integrated operations that include retail, cultivation, process and distribution — not simply a retailer. Since the town’s zoning laws only apply to retailers, the law “does not and cannot apply to Columbia Care” as a registered organization with dispensing.  

In her letter to the Office of Cannabis Management, Thomas notes that Columbia Care is less than 400 feet from single-family residences, but does not appear to dispute the business’s rationale. “Accordingly, to the extent that applicant is considered exempt, the Town would not object to the proposed application,” Thomas wrote. 

The other seven proposals objected to by the town, also in letters sent by Thomas, include five locations in commercial districts along Route 58 that are within the 1,000-foot limit from residential uses, as well as two proposals for downtown Riverhead. Thomas objected to the downtown proposals on the grounds that they would violate the new downtown overlay district — which prohibits smoke shops — as well as proximity to town parks and drug rehabilitation facilities.

“We are totally excited for those who have the ability to move forward, because we know that’s exactly what we’re looking to do, open up Long Island for cannabis retail. So  we commend them, we celebrate with them and we’re excited for them,” said Gahrey Ovalle, the president of the Long Island Cannabis Coalition, a cannabis industry trade group. “For all of the others who have received these objections or rejections, I think this highlights the problem here on Long Island: there is not enough accessibility to open up cannabis retail in a significant way. And this is the opportunity for the towns to revisit some of their restrictions.”

Manisha Patel of Riverhead, one of the conditional adult-use retail dispensary licensees whose location was objected to by the town, said he has spent a lot of money getting his license, buying the property at 1352 East Main Street — the former Edwards Sporting Goods store — and keeping open the space where he hoped to set up his adult-use cannabis business. 

“There is no school, there is no church, there is no library, there is nothing there. But one of the houses is less than 1,000 feet [away],” Patel said. Patel said he hopes the town will relax the restrictions so he can open his shop where he planned.

Thomas’ letter objecting to Patel’s location states the property is “approximately 400 feet [from] an existing single-family residential neighborhood and approximately 300 feet from a single-family residence.” 

The letter states that although the town is reviewing loosening the regulations to allow for more businesses, “it is unlikely that this location would be included in any new zoning that could be adopted.”

Also included within the sites along Route 58 that the town objected to is a vacant former bank branch on Ostrander Avenue off Route 58. Two licensees submitted notices to the town for the site, including Mottz Only Authentic New York Style. Sean Lustberg, the business’s owner, said in October that the restrictive zoning requirements had him looking outside of Riverhead Town to set up a pot shop.

Other locations objected to by the town include: 

  • 20 West Main Street
  • 1105 Old Country Road
  • 655-815 Old Country Road
  • 112-114 Griffing Avenue

Ovalle said the organizations are seeing restrictions from residential uses in other municipalities that have allowed retail sales. “We’re recognizing that some of those restrictions are just too much,” he said. His group has asked for townships to revisit their zoning and get closer to the Office of Cannabis Management regulations — in that the zoning is not “unreasonably impracticable.”

In state regulations, a claimant may file a challenge to the validity of a local law restricting cannabis if they believe it is “unreasonably impracticable.” The Office of Cannabis Management’s Cannabis Control Board would ultimately determine whether or not the local law violates the state law. The opinion could then be used in court to legally challenge the local law.  

“Obviously, that is part of the process and part of the recourse if the towns don’t move away from their over-restriction of these cannabis regulations,” Ovalle said. The Long Island Cannabis Coalition and the state are trying to avoid the need to challenge zoning in that way, he said, by meeting with local officials. 

Ovalle said on Thursday that he was meeting with Riverhead Town officials later that day to discuss zoning changes. He said more local officials have become amicable to change zoning laws now that local elections are over.

Riverhead Town adopted its zoning last year after holding three public forums with an ad-hoc committee led by Council Member Ken Rothwell, one of two board members, who along with Supervisor Yvette Aguiar, unsuccessfully voted to opt-out of recreational cannabis sales within the town. The law requires 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.

A map presented to the public during the hearing on the law did not accurately depict the totality of the code’s restrictions. The 1,000-foot buffer from residential uses, a component of the law not originally discussed by the committee, was not included on the map. The map misled people at the hearing, who hailed the zoning proposal as some of the friendliest to the emerging industry on Long Island. 

Although Rothwell knew about the mistake, the Town Board adopted the law establishing the restrictions 4-1, with Aguiar opposed. The map’s inaccuracy was not mentioned.

It would not be until April until the totality of the code’s impact would be known, as a GIS map created by a town official showed only 36 parcels as potential locations for retail marijuana shops. A further examination of the town’s document showed even fewer had the potential to be dispensaries. Town officials said in September that only five parcels — one of which was the municipal garage — qualified under the current zoning. 

The map was created after the town’s Business Advisory Committee sent a letter to the board in February asking for the regulations to be more in line with those governing liquor stores. The advisory committee met with the Town Board in June about the code; board members’ opinions were split during the discussion

Rothwell took the conversation to the Marijuana Advisory Committee, calling a meeting on Sept. 6. During the meeting, Lustberg and other representatives of the marijuana industry urged the committee to loosen the restrictions. Rothwell conceded the zoning might be unfairly restrictive. 

At the conclusion of the meeting, no change had been decided on. Rothwell said another committee meeting would be called after town staff has a new parcel map prepared depicting different options — which he said could be as soon as two or three weeks.

Last week, Rothwell announced that a committee meeting would be held on Dec. 19 at 6 p.m. at Town Hall. On the agenda, sent out by the town board coordinator, is a presentation and discussion of new code amendments and maps. Rothwell did not return a call requesting comment for this article.

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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