Falmouth council may reconsider marijuana moratorium

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FALMOUTH — Towns and cities have been wrestling with local regulations after Maine became the eighth state in the nation to legalize recreational marijuana last fall, and Falmouth is no exception.

The Town Council initially delayed instituting a moratorium on retail sales, grow operations and social clubs, believing there was plenty of time to talk about what, if any, regulations to impose, including zoning amendments.

But, even with a statewide ban on retail sales of marijuana until February 2018, both Town Manager Nathan Poore and town attorney Amy Tchao believe there’s some risk that recreational marijuana businesses could come to town before the council has instituted any local protections.

So Poore and Tchao are now encouraging the council to enact a moratorium that would prevent any recreational marijuana operations from coming to Falmouth before any new rules can be put into place.

“If you want to study this issue free of hassle, that would be far easier to do under a moratorium,” Tchao told the council at a workshop Monday.

Poore said, “Without a moratorium, there is some risk, especially because so much money is involved that people will become very creative” about getting around any current limits.

In addition, Tchao asked the council to decide earlier rather than later if they want to prohibit all uses for recreational marijuana, which is allowed by the new state law.

At the workshop several councilors seemed interested in limiting the types of recreational marijuana operations that might be allowed in town, but declined to institute a complete ban.

Councilor Aaron Svedlow said, “(Recreational marijuana) was approved by the people, so I don’t think a blanket prohibition would be acceptable. I think it’s our charge to implement” the new law.

Councilor Claudia King agreed, as did Councilor Charlie McBrady. But he also said, “We need to be thoughtful and take our time” in terms of studying the pros and cons of the various uses for recreational marijuana now allowed.

Speaking in support of a moratorium, Councilor Caleb Hemphill added, “We need to fairly evaluate our options, and I feel more comfortable doing that under a moratorium.”

Council Chairwoman Karen Farber also supported a moratorium Monday, but urged her fellow councilors to consider what policy development process they would like to follow, whether it’s a committee of the whole board or an ad hoc group that might also include residents.

Poore and Tchao both said the council could implement a moratorium no later than the end of May, which would give Falmouth 180 days to consider what regulations it might want to impose on recreational marijuana operations.

The moratorium can also be renewed for another 180 days each time. Tchao said technically there is no limit to the number of times the council could renew the moratorium, but also warned against “endless moratoria.”

During the workshop Justin Brown, the town’s code enforcement officer, said regulating recreational marijuana is “pretty unchartered territory and most towns are scratching their heads,” about the best approach to take.

Tchao said even if the town decides to allow some recreational marijuana operations, it has carte blanche to set any limits it wants; Falmouth can even limit the total number of businesses in any one category.

For instance, she said, the town could say, “We only want one social club and two retail stores and no manufacturing. Or you could take the approach of letting the free market decide and be completely hands off.”

Tchao also said if Falmouth is considering any recreational marijuana operations, the town might want to look at implementing various new rules around safety. Those could include lighting and fencing requirements; nuisance rules, including noise and smells; and “time, place and manner” of operations.

Tchao also said the town should also consider implementing requirements around both financial and technical capabilities to ensure that businesses have an exit plan that doesn’t leave untended product in an unsecured location.

Hemphill also said he would like to understand what “this potentially hugely lucrative market” might mean to the town in terms of tax income and business development.

Poore said in order to answer Hemphill’s question, the town would have to hire someone to do a market analysis, which is something the other councilors seemed to support.

At the end of the workshop, Poore said he could likely have moratorium language ready in time for a first reading March 27. The measure would then require a public hearing, likely sometime in April, and then a final vote.

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KirishCollins.

Like other towns across Maine, Falmouth is struggling over what, if any, new rules should regulate retail sales, grow operations and social clubs associated with the legalization of recreational marijuana.