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RED BANK: POT LAW DRAWS FIRE BUT ADVANCES

hampton-inn-site-022619-500x332-8874831A long-vacant gas station at the foot of Cooper’s Bridge was left out of the new law by mistake, proponents said. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge.)

By JOHN T. WARD

hot-topic_02-220x137-6360205The Red Bank council advanced a rewrite of the borough pot law Wednesday night, undeterred by cannabis business owners warning of lawsuits.

The proposed changes, which include a ban on marijuana retailing within 1,000 feet of schools, “please no one,” but must be adopted, their lead sponsor told a sharply divided audience at a special legislative session.

red-bank-11-west-street-110521-1-500x332-8888491The proposed zoning would kill a plan by Andy Zeitlin and Caryn Cohen, below, to open a dispensary next to a liquor store on West Street, above. (Photos by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge.)

andy-zeitlin-032923-220x164-3343107On the agenda for the special session was a proposed overhaul of the 2021 zoning law to limit where cannabis businesses, from cultivation to retail sales, can operate.

Drafted by the council’s code committee – councilmembers Michael Ballard Angela Mirandi and John Jackson –  the zoning changes would prohibit cannabis businesses from operating within 1,000 feet of “a public or private school, playground, or housing facility owned by a public housing authority,” or “500 feet of parks, houses of worship, and daycare centers,” it states.

Exempted from the restriction are businesses in the Highway Development zone along Newman Springs Road.

Running more than two and a half hours, the hearing continued a divide seen at prior council sessions, with some residents pressing to keep dispensaries far from schools and play areas, while others argued for the economic and societal benefits of siting shops in town.

Would-be retailers and attorneys were present to object to the changes, and raised the specter of litigation.

Douglas Bern, a lawyer for Garden at Red Bank LLC, the contract buyer of a long-vacant Exxon station at the foot of the Route 35 Cooper’s Bridge, said his client had relied on the borough’s 2021 cannabis zoning, and a resolution endorsed by the council just five months ago, in its preparations.

The site, at 80 Rector Place, was approved in 2017 for a six-story Hampton Inn  that was never built. It’s now “being rendered unusable” by the ordinance, Bern said.

Ballard agreed the site should be permitted to have a cannabis store, and said the omission had been an oversight. He added that borough Attorney Dan Antonelli, who was not present, had advised that “it would be unwise” to add the address to the list of allowable retail locations.

Instead, said Ballard, the law could later be further amended in the future, or Bern’s client “can always apply for variance.”

“We would have a huge undertaking going before the zoning board,” Bern replied. “This is kind of a curveball that’s being thrown” to his client, he said.

A January filing with the New Jersey Secretary of State identifies the management of Garden at Red Bank LLC as Jamie Dinar, of “Long Beach, NJ,” though the zip code included is for Long Branch.

Later in the meeting, an effort to include the site was aborted, and the ordinance was introduced without it.

Also claiming to have been squeezed out were Andy Zeitlin and Caryn Cohen, a Middletown husband and wife who own Canopy Crossroads LLC.

The couple has had plans to open their shop at 9 West Street, next door to Red Bank Liquors. But the pending changes would bar that location as too close – some 890 feet, said Zeitlin – to the Red Bank Charter School.

“I can’t think of anything more appropriate than next to a liquor store that fronts West Front Street,” Cohen told the council.

Zeitlin, a chemist who was among the founders of the pharmaceutical company Celgene, urged the council to table the changes and revise them.

“If you pass this tonight, and I don’t want to be threatening,” he said, “this could result in litigation, and nobody wants to go there.”

“It’ll go on forever,” he said.

Commenting remotely, Scott Rudder, founder of a trade group called the New Jersey CannaBusiness Association, also warned of lawsuits.

“There are several applicants here who have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars based on the approvals they received a year ago,” he said. “Now, many months later, it appears that the rug is being pulled out from under all of them. And quite frankly, in my opinion, you’re setting yourself up for a potential lawsuit.”

The council has awarded resolutions to 14 would-be retailers and three prospective cultivators  –  each titled “RESOLUTION ACKNOWLEDGING THAT CANNABIS BUSINESS LICENSE APPLICANT HAS PROPOSED A TYPE OF CANNABIS BUSINESS THAT IS PERMITTED WITHIN THE BOROUGH AND WOULD NOT EXCEED ANY MUNICIPAL LICENSE LIMIT.”

Joshua Cittadino, an attorney for G’s Trees Cultivation Club LLC, which plans to build a growing facility on Catherine Street, also claimed that the proposed ordinance conflicts with a resolution granted to his client by the council in September “right here in this room.”

The business is now “in the final stages of approval” with the state Cannabis Control Commission, he said.

Cittadino said he and his client, who state records indicate is Kathryn Rose Murison of Middletown, relied “to our detriment” on the council’s resolution, and proceeded to spend “hundreds of thousands of dollars” to advance the plan. He asked that the council table the proposed amendment for further work.

A representative of a group hoping to create a dispensary at 54 North Bridge Avenue, home to a laundromat, also objected.

Ballard, though, said that Zeitlin and Cohen’s business could be accommodated a block away, on Allen Place, a street with four houses, an apartment project under construction and a funeral home, but no existing retail space.

Ballard said the street was chosen “as a substitute for West Street,” because  it lies in a “business-residential” zone.

That “doesn’t make any sense at all,” said Branch Avenue resident Barbara Boas, a member of the planning board.

Several parents of Red Bank Charter School students, including Nicole Taetsch of Hudson Avenue, repeated earlier requests that no cannabis businesses be allowed within 1,000 feet of the the school. But other RBCS parents supported the retailers.

“It’s like picking up dry cleaning,” with no adverse impact on the area, said Andrew Deming, of Rector Place. In the case of the West Street application, “there’s already a liquor store right next to it, and the school is OK with that.”

“These places are not going to influence our children or harm them in any way,” he said.

“I don’t see a problem,” said another RBCS parent, Mandy Hanigan, of Oakland Street, though she called for sustained focus on educating children about the dangers of smoking.

Part of the session was taken up by debate about a map, which was not made available to the public and Councilwoman Kate Triggiano said she had not seen.

Mayor Billy Portman asked Ballard if there were an inconsistencies between a new zoning map, and Ballard said he didn’t believe there were.

But interim Administrator Darren McConnell identified several instances where the map appeared to preclude cannabis businesses while the text of the ordinance would allow them, including the building at 25 Bridge Avenue and a location on West Front Street.

“That needs to be validated,” said Mirandi, who referred to the map as “more of a nice-to-have.”

Inconsistencies aside, Ballard said the committee “went over this with a fine-tooth comb,” and further adjustments could be made.

Portman said the process felt “rushed.”

“I’m jut thinking this wasn’t completely thought through,” he said.

With all six council members present, the ordinance was introduced on a 5-1 vote, with Triggiano opposing, based on what she called “spot zoning.”

Triggiano said the borough’s planning director, Shawna Ebanks, who was not present, had asked months ago only for “one sentence to clarify” but the code committee had instead undertaken a complete rewrite of the law.

Ballard disputed that characterization. “It needed additional clarity,” Mirandi added.

Ballard defended the majority’s stance.

“There are varying opinions on how we should regulate cannabis,” Ballard said. “These regulations please no one. But we’re trying to do something that we can at least move this forward.”

“We’re one of the few municipalities in the area that is even allowing cannabis,,” he continued. “I think back to what my mother said: ‘no good deed goes unpunished.’ We want it here, we’re trying to get it here, and we’re being attacked because we’re trying to get it here so it works for everybody, not just the cannabis industry.”

Before it can be adopted, the ordinance must be reviewed by the planning board, which has canceled its next regular session, scheduled for Monday, and is now slated to meet April 17.

The council also introduced, with another 5-1 vote, an ordinance creating a four-official cannabis review board and setting out the steps applicants must follow to obtain a borough operating license. That measure, which does not require board review, is expected to be up for adoption at the April 12 council meeting.

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