South Portland enacts moratorium on marijuana dispensaries

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SOUTH PORTLAND — The City Council on Monday night approved a 180-day moratorium on medical marijuana dispensaries and accepted more than $310,000 in Homeland Security grants.

The council also approved a plan to designate Officer Frank Stepnick as a computer crimes investigator for the state Department of Public Safety, which will fund the position for the next two years.

The council voted 5-2 to enact the six-month moratorium on medical marijuana dispensaries.

Councilors Tom Blake and Rosemarie DeAngelis voted against the ban, saying it would only delay work on properly zoning dispensaries.

Blake said the city has also been put on notice by backers of the medical marijuana initiative approved last November that they may sue to obtain permits if dispensaries are not allowed to operate by the end of June.

“We don’t need to waste taxpayer money on this,” he said.

Supporters of the moratorium said the ban is needed to prevent people from seeking local approvals for dispensaries within the context of current zoning laws. A temporary ban would give the city more time to craft local rules, they said.

“They can apply for that and get ahead of the game,” Councilor Linda Boudreau said. “We need to take our time and do this right.”

No one will be able to sell medical marijuana until the state finalizes licensing procedures and standards. But city attorney Sally Daggett has said that without the ban someone could get a local approval for a medical office and would be grandfathered by any zone changes the city makes.

Blake disagreed with the notion the city needed more time to craft the local rules.

“There’s no need to take our time,” Blake said. “Do it right, but let’s get it done.”

Mayor Tom Coward said he expects to initiate a council discussion about where to allow dispensaries sooner rather than later. Proper regulations will allow the city to avoid problems experienced in Los Angeles, he said.

“Some places that have tried this turned into debacle,” Coward said. “I don’t want to have our own mini-debacle here in South Portland.”

Computer crimes

Though Stepnick will be based in South Portland and will be available for some local emergency calls, Police Chief Edward Googins said the new designation could reduce the force by one officer if the council decides to cut funding for the position.

“If our budget remains intact for our staffing, we will back-fill (the position),” Googins said.

The state is expected to use federal stimulus money to reimburse the city a little more than $210,000 through February, 2012 to pay for Stepnick’s salary, benefits, vehicle and other equipment.

Googins said Stepnick will be responsible for following up on computer forensics cases, allowing evidence technicians and police detectives to remain in the lab.

The council also accepted more than $310,000 in Homeland Security grants, a sum that includes $88,000 to pay the salary of a emergency management/homeland security planner. That position has been empty since Jeff Temple resigned in 2008 to become a nuclear power plant inspector for Nuclear Regulatory Agency in Washington, D.C.

Fire Chief Kevin Guimond said the city interviewed several candidates for the position, but couldn’t find the “right fit.”

“(Jeff) was one of a kind,” Guimond said.

Guimond said the city will likely promote a deputy fire chief into that position and expand the job description to include oversight of hazardous materials training and certain emergency public health initiatives, such as the H1N1 vaccination clinics.

“I expect another grant, so we could probably fund this position further,” said Guimond, who has been acting as the emergency coordinator since Temple left.

The city is planning to purchase $78,000 in new equipment, according to the city manager’s position paper to the council, and $20,000 will be used to integrate public safety and Global Information Systems.

Another $55,000 will be allocated to integrate public safety communication systems, $35,000 will be used for training and $25,000 will be used to buy mobile surveillance systems for public buses.

The grant, which requires no local match, will fund initiatives through August 2012, he said.

Since 2003, South Portland is one of five metro regions that receive a direct Homeland Security allocation.

Guimond said the city, along with Portland, is also responsible for securing Portland Harbor. Considered a Tier 2 port, the cities receive additional funding to distribute to harbor businesses, like the oil terminals, that are looking to ramp up security.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or