Portland planners narrow zoning for pot dispensaries, growers

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PORTLAND — The Planning Board Tuesday night recommended that medical marijuana dispensaries be allowed in specific business zones, while cultivation of the plants be limited to industrial areas.

The board’s recommendation to the City Council does not preclude a dispensary from cultivating marijuana on site, but would regulate where stand-alone growers could operate.

Northeast Patients Group received permission from the state July 8 to open a medical marijuana dispensary in Portland. The group’s executive director, Rebecca DeKeuster, said they plan to be in business by December.

The public hearing on the topic was a quiet affair, with comments from just DeKeuster and two members of the public.

The Planning Board was acting on a recent directive from the council to study zoning for dispensaries, with a particular eye on the B-2 community business zones, B-3 downtown business zones and B-7 zones.

Planners recommended, under guidance from city staff, that industrial zones in the city and the B-4 commercial corridor zone be used for cultivation-only facilities.

Northeast Patients Group is negotiating to lease the former KeyBank building at the corner of Congress and St. John streets. The property was chosen because of its proximity to Metro bus stops, the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Department, Maine Medical Center and the Greyhound bus station.

The facility is the only one approved to operate in Cumberland County.

The City Council said it was important the dispensary be near public transit. It is unclear, however, how many patients will take advantage of the Greyhound service, since the only other stop those buses make in the county is Brunswick.

Planning Board member Lee Lowry said access to parking should weigh heavily, too.

“People are going to be coming in from all over the county,” Lowry said. “It’s not just for Portland residents.”

Lowry suggested the board also consider recommending the B-4 and B-5 business zones, but was told by staff that to do so the board would have to conduct another meeting with an amended notice.

DeKeuster said the Northeast Patients Group dispensary is expected to act as a community center for patients, too, with private rooms for individual counseling and space for group meetings. She said she expects on-site consumption of marijuana will take place.

“There are a lot of good reasons to provide a safe place to medicate,” DeKeuster said, including if patients have children at home or live in public housing.

She said her group, which also was selected to run three other dispensaries in the state, plans to have its cultivation and food processing facility in Hermon.

Northeast Patients Group estimates it will have about 260 patients by the end of the first year of operation. DeKeuster said eventually about 1 percent of Mainers will probably be registered patients for medical marijuana.

She also praised Portland’s zoning proposal.

“I think this is one of the most sensible zoning plans I’ve seen in the years I’ve been doing this,” said DeKeuster, who spent several years working at dispensaries in California and helping form policy in that state.

The City Council will take up the Planning Board recommendation July 19 at its 7 p.m. meeting at City Hall.

Kate Bucklin can be reached at 781-3661 ext .106 or kbucklin@theforecaster.net