RED BANK: POT LAW OVERHAUL PROPOSED

Cannabis proponent Andy Zeitlin testifying at the special session. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge.)

By JOHN T. WARD

hot topicExpecting to hear about proposed tweaks to Red Bank’s pot law, attendees at a special council session Monday night instead learned that it may be completely rewritten to make it more restrictive.

Councilwoman Angela Mirandi fiercely defended the proposed changes, calling the original 2021 ordinance “reckless.”

Scarlet Reserve co-owner John Marchetti called the draft overhaul “just crazy.” Councilwoman Angela Mirandi, below, defended the proposed changes.¬†(Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge.)

Under a late-arriving proposal that Councilmember Michael Ballard said repeatedly said was “only a draft,” the town’s ordinance would be changed to:

  • Limit the number of cannabis retailers in town to two, from an indefinite number based on zoning criteria
  • Specify the streets and blocks on which cannabis businesses would be allowed
  • Create a three-member Cannabis Review Board to hold hearings with applicants and advise the council on whether to award licenses
  • Require all proposed cannabis businesses to obtain planning board approval
  • Require six off-site parking spaces per 1,000 square feet of cannabis retail space
  • Prohibit queuing of customers
  • Prohibit consumption lounges
  • Set hours of operation from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m, Monday through Saturday, and from noon to 6 p.m. on Sunday
  • Set a minimum distance of 25o feet between cannabis businesses
  • Eliminate a cannabis delivery services as a permitted use, while allowing retailers to provide delivery to customers.

John Marchetti, a co-owner of Scarlet Reserve Room, a cigar bar on East Front Street, called the changes “just ridiculous.”

Under New Jersey law, towns that opted to allow cannabis businesses within their borders “can’t get more restrictive” now that they’ve done so, he said. “This is just crazy, let’s be honest.”

As previously reported, the review had been initiated partially at Marchetti’s request, after the borough zoning office rejected his application to convert his shop to a retail cannabis dispensary.

The planning office based its decision on the shop’s proximity to the playground in Marine Park; Marchetti argued that the store’s location had been chosen based in part on an erroneous borough zoning map.

Partly at issue is federal law, under which marijuana is still an illegal drug, though the substance has been legalized in New Jersey. Federal law sets added penalties for sales within 1,000 feet of a school, playground or public housing facility.

But instead of limiting its review to Marchetti’s request that cannabis retailers be allowed as close as 250 feet to schools and playgrounds, the three-member code committee¬† “completely overhauled” the ordinance, said Mayor Billy Portman¬†sounding stunned.

“You were looking for clarification on distances,” he told planning Director Shawna Ebanks. “This is a completely new ordinance, top-to-bottom. It goes well beyond what you were looking for in terms of clarification.”

Over nearly three hours, a number of speakers, including Councilwoman Kate Triggiano, called for the 2021 ordinance to be left largely intact, except to reduce the allowable proximity to places where children gather, from the presumed 1,000 feet used in federal law.

That would enable Scarlet Reserve to meet its state deadline to open for business by early April. Without it, Marchetti has said, the store might have to leave town and start the arduous licensing process all over again.

River Street resident Chris Havens pressed the council not to make “reckless and unfair” changes to rules that business owners have relied on from the outset.

“Make minor improvements,” he said. “Please don’t blow up the process.”

Jim Waltz of Rumson, who works in the cannabis industry, called the 2021 ordinance “well thought out from the beginning, in a way that is by definition restrictive and in compliance with federal and state law.”

While he agreed “it’s a mistake” to put the businesses “too close” to schools and playgrounds because armed security is needed to oversee the all-cash businesses, “I would be cautious about restricting it further,” Waltz said.

But Mirandi, a member of the code committee along with Ballard and Councilman John Jackson, claimed credit for much of the rewrite, and heatedly defended it over some shouted objections from the audience.

“As a resident, I thought our original ordinance was reckless, saying ‘unlimited licenses,'” she said.

“Red Bank dove head-first into an empty pool,” she said. “We just said ‘unlimited, and we still don’t know what that will result in.”

The code committee spent “a lot of time trying to right the ship,” she said.

“We tried to rightsize the business for the size of our town,” said Jackson, adding later, “I find unrestricted licenses absolutely unacceptable.”

Chris Sirico, of Irving Place, said the council was too focused on “business, business, business,” at the expense of residents.

They, and schools, “need to be protected,” he said.

No cannabis licenses have yet been issued in the borough, though the council has approved resolutions on behalf of 14 would-be retailers and three prospective cultivators that are in the midst of the New Jersey licensing process. The resolutions state that the issuance of a license to the applicant by the state Cannabis Control Commission “would not exceed any municipally-imposed limit.”

Two more retailers and one manufacturer asking for the same at the council’s regular semimonthly meeting Wednesday night.

In response to questions from prospective retailer Andy Zeitlin and others, borough Attorney Dan Antonelli said the resolutions are “not binding” and could be voided by a change in the ordinance.

“I don’t know how you pull those back,” said Zeitlin.

Portman said limiting the town to two retail licenses “is unnecessarily restrictive.”

When the statewide vote on legalization was held in 2020, “seventy percent of Red Bank residents voted in favor of cannabis,” Portman said. In light of that, “the draft ordinance feels like a bit of a bait-and-switch.”

The draft was posted to the borough website’s calendar page, but not its agenda page, just hours before the meeting, Several commenters criticized the late drop.

“This knee-jerk, wait-til-the-last-minute and scramble kind of government doesn’t work,” said Branch Avenue resident and planning board member Barbara Boas. “And that’s what I’m seeing in Red Bank all the time now.”

The council is expected to continue discussion of the matter Wednesday night. That leaves Scarlet Reserve in limbo, Marchetti told redbankgreen afterward.

“This council flip-flops from meeting to meeting, so we have no idea” what might happen next, he said.

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