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RED BANK: CANNABIS SHOP OK’D

red-bank-9-west-051023-3-500x375-4629253Canopy Crossroad plans to lease 9 West Street, a portion of a building that also houses Red Bank Liquors. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge.)

By JOHN T. WARD

hot-topic_03-220x138-9108919A proposed Red Bank marijuana shop that’s been a focal point in a running debate over cannabis zoning won approval from the borough planning board Monday night.

With a more welcoming council set to take office July 1, Canopy Crossroad now appears to have a clearer path to opening next door to Red Bank Liquors, though hurdles remain.

andy-zeitlin-051523-500x419-4189100Canopy Crossroad co-owner Andy Zeitlin after Monday night’s meeting. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge.)

Owned by Andy Zeitlin and Caryn Cohen of Middletown, Canopy Crossroad won approval of its conditional-use application for  9 West Street on an 8-1 board vote. Only board member Juanita Lewis, a former council member, voted no; she offered no comments during the hearing.

The application overcame pushback by objectors who cited the store’s proximity to the Red Bank Charter School, which Zeitlin had previously testified was about 890 feet away. The school’s Oakland Street campus includes property on Monmouth Street.

Though marijuana is legal in New Jersey, federal law still classifies it an illegal drug, and a borough ordinance at issue prohibits cannabis businesses “in any area in which, under State or Federal law, any cannabis business would be prohibited from operating based upon its proximity to a school, park, housing authority property, public or private youth center, or swimming pool,” opponents noted.

“The issue simply is one of proximity,” said Peter Wersinger, attorney for the nearby Red Bank Corporate Center, at 141 West Front. “Red Bank is saying, ‘if there’s a thousand-foot limitation in federal law that would make the distribution improper, it shouldn’t be located there.'”

Wersinger drew return fire from board member David Cassidy and Chairman Dan Mancuso when he asked Zeitlin if he considered the location desirable “because there’s a charter school less than 1,000 feet away.”

“I’ve gotta ask: are you implying that they want to sell cannabis to school children?” asked Cassidy, who last week was elected to the council. “The way you phrased that question was disrespectful, and I’m going to call you on that, because it wasn’t appropriate. You’re implying that they’re willing to sell cannabis to school children.”

“No, I did not, and I take umbrage at your remarks,” Wersinger shot back.

“You didn’t ask if it was within a thousand feet of the school,” said Mancuso. “You asked if, because it’s within a thousand feet of a school, makes it a great place for a cannabis retail. Well, I take exception to that, because it implies that this retail use would sell cannabis to children within a thousand feet.”

“I’m not suggesting that at all,” said Wersinger.

Though Mancuso and Cassidy were the only two board members to offer any comment on the application, the majority appeared swayed by Mancuso and board attorney Michael Leckstein. Both argued that objections based on federal law were beyond the scope of the board’s consideration.

“We’re not going to solve the war between when Congress is going to take off the stigma of marijuana or not,” Leckstein said. “We just follow what the land use [law] says, and the land use says that there was no use variance necessary.” The remaining issue, he said, was whether the applicant satisfied six specific conditions, as its attorney, Rick Brodsky, argued it had.

Afterward, Zeitlin said he and Cohen, his spouse, hope to open the shop for business by the end the year. Before that, they must clear remaining state and local reviews, including one by a borough Cannabis Review Board, which was created by ordinance April 12 but has not yet been formed, and by the council itself.

Absent from the meeting was Councilmember Michael Ballard. As chairman of the code committee, Ballard has been leading a hotly debated effort to tighten the cannabis business zoning law adopted in 2021. Among the committee’s objections to that law is that it would allow a pot shop within 1,000 feet of the school.

Last month, however, the planning board ruled that the pending amendments don’t comply with the borough’s Master Plan because it would impede, rather than advance, economic development.

Ballard lost his council seat in last week’s historic election. The incoming mayor and council, all members of a slate headed by incumbent Mayor Billy Portman, is expected to tweak, rather than rewrite the 2021 ordinance.

Canopy Crossroad is now the second marijuana retailer to win planning board approval: the first was a business approved in March to be located in the space now occupied by the China Moon restaurant on North Bridge Avenue.

A third plan, by Plug Naturals LLC, for a shop at 156 West Front Street – just around the corner from Canopy Crossroad – was removed from the board’s agenda Monday at the applicant’s request. The hearing is now scheduled for July 17.

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