Topsham voters ratify $12.2M budget, block retail pot ban

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TOPSHAM — Voters at Town Meeting Wednesday approved a $12.2 million municipal budget for next year, but nixed a proposed ban on retail marijuana operations.

The 2 1/2-hour gathering at Mt. Ararat High School Commons drew 107 of the town’s approximately 7,500 registered voters, or less than 2 percent.

The town’s fiscal year 2019 spending plan is up 3.27 percent. Taking into account assessments from School Administrative District 75 ($10.3 million, up 5.8 percent) and Sagadahoc County ($1.7 million, up 0.8 percent), Topsham’s total appropriation adds up to $24.1 million. Subtracting $4.7 million in municipal revenues, the town’s tax levy could be $19.4 million, a 6.4 percent increase over FY 2018.

That figure, divided by the town’s $1 billion total land value, produces a tax rate of $19.16 per $1,000 of property valuation – an hike of $1.04, or 5.77 percent. The owner of a home valued at $200,000 would see a $208 tax increase.

All budget line items passed as jointly recommended by the Board of Selectmen and Finance Committee. Resident Nancy Randolph proposed adding $200,000 to the Public Works Department’s $500,000 road construction item, in order to address more roads in need of work. That amendment failed in a show-of-hands vote, and the original motion carried.

Residents also voted against a ban on retail marijuana establishments throughout Topsham. Towns are allowed by state law to prohibit retail establishments, but not medical marijuana dispensaries.

The prohibition would have had no impact on High Brow, a retail operation that sells handmade glass pipes, which opened recently at Topsham Fair Mall, Town Planner Rod Melanson has said. The business has, as an accessory use, a medical marijuana caregiver operation for up to five clients; such clinics are allowed by state statute, according to Town Manager Rich Roedner.

Addressing several concerns expressed at Town Meeting about the impact on existing medical marijuana operations, Town Attorney Mary Costigan noted that “when you have an existing business, and an ordinance is passed that would make that business illegal … (it) then becomes a non-conforming use.”

“It’s grandfathered as it is today,” and therefore allowed to remain without impact, but the use cannot be expanded, she added.

Municipalities have to “opt in” in order to allow retail marijuana operations, Roedner said. “So even without this language (a business) couldn’t move to retail until we adopt affirmative language allowing it.”

Resident Peter Lepari, who said he has never used any kind of marijuana, was among many who did not support the ban.

“In light of the fact that thousands of people in the town voted for recreational marijuana,” and only a handful of residents later voted to extend the moratorium, he said, “and in light of the fact that if we defeat this, nobody in the town can establish a retail establishment unless we opt in, this … seems moot.”

Voters at the May 2017 Town Meeting adopted a moratorium on retail marijuana sales – which followed the narrow passage of a statewide referendum in November 2016 to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana as an agricultural product. Residents extended that freeze at a special Town Meeting last December.

The ban in Topsham would have avoided extending the moratorium. The town could reconsider the matter once it has reviewed the state’s retail marijuana legislation.

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

Topsham’s Town Meeting ran 2 1/2 hours Wednesday and drew 107 registered voters to the Mt. Ararat High School Commons.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.