A woman walks through the parking lot of a the strip mall where Theory Wellness’ store front is in South Portland near the Maine Mall on Sept. 8. Theory Wellness of Maine LLC is one of only two recreational marijuana companies in Maine to be awarded a retail license by the state in the first round of awards. Brianna Soukup photo/Press Herald

SOUTH PORTLAND — A majority of city councilors supported recommendations brought forward on Oct. 20 to limit and regulate the number of licensed marijuana storefronts due to overconcentration.

Several staff suggestions were presented in a workshop by Milan Nevajda, planning director, who said that there are 31 individual sites “doing something with marijuana,” meaning cultivation, retail, etc.

Of the 31 sites, 24 are recreational retailers or medical dispensaries, 18 of which already approved by the planning board. Six of the 18 are waiting for approval from the city council, he said.

Councilors examined a proposal to create a 2,000-foot buffer in between marijuana retail stores or dispensaries as well as a 1,000-foot buffer in between stores or dispensaries and “sensitive use” facilities, including places offering childcare, community centers, schools, recreation facilities and places of religious worship.

Milan Nevajda, South Portland planning director, presented the city council with multiple recommendations to address concerns of over-concentration of marijuana retailers or dispensaries that may be present. One recommendation includes increasing the buffer size in between stores and other marijuana businesses. Courtesy photo City of South Portland

South Portland began the marijuana business discussion following a 2016 referendum legalizing the recreational use of cannabis products, Nevajda said. In 2017 and 2018, councilors decided not to pursue a quota or cap system.

The current criteria for marijuana retailers or medical dispensaries is to have a buffer of 300 feet between both “sensitive use” areas and other cannabis storefronts, he said.

Jean Esposito, co-owner of Southern Maine Taekwondo on 798 Main St., asked the council in a public comment to consider expanding the definition of “sensitive use” areas to include businesses like dance studios and martial arts schools, places that primarily serve children.

Esposito has told her landlord that Southern Maine Taekwondo will move locations if a marijuana business opens in its current plaza, she said.

“It certainly wouldn’t be a family-friendly environment to have side-by-side signs, and who’s going to bring their child into a martial arts studio when they have to enter the door to the marijuana shop, or in this case a pharmaceutical?” she said.

A medical marijuana dispensary, Beach Boys Cannabis Company, is located on 818 Main St.

No representatives of licensed marijuana establishments offered public comment.

Four of the councilors did favor the expansion of the “sensitive use” definition, including Mayor Kate Lewis.

“I think that while this type of business in terms of marijuana might be adding to state tax revenue and might be bringing people into the city, I firmly believe we should not be opening the doors to more of that at the expense of long-established and existing businesses that serve youth and families in our community … ,” she said.

Councilor April Caricchio said she was concerned about established businesses leaving because of marijuana retailers.

“It’s not to villainize anybody,” she said. “It’s just we have very limited space, and we have to be cognizant of that with everything we do.”

Over-concentration of marijuana establishments may not be what voters want, Lewis said. She found it interesting that there may be more cannabis stores than drugstores or pharmacies in some city communities.

“I think that people voted to allow marijuana to be legal and sold, but it wasn’t in a landslide, and they weren’t mandating every corner store,” she said. “I feel comfortable that with 31 potential establishments, we have more than met the voters’ desire to have marijuana available and it doesn’t mean we need to keep going further than that.”

There are benefits to the opening of marijuana establishments, Councilor Claude Morgan said.

“… We also need to keep some elasticity in our economy,” he said. “These stores may in fact carry us through some hard times.”

Councilor Deqa Dhalac of District 5 said that she is concerned about minority communities in the city and how the possession of marijuana and presence of retailers may affect them.

Eight of nine licensed establishments in District 5, encompassing the west of South Portland, have been approved, said Nevadja.

“The fact that it’s illegal in federal level — and also our own police chief at the time when we were debating this issue last year said, I’m not supporting this — It’s illegal,” Dhalac said. She added that police are often present in District 5.

Caricchio also shares Dhalac’s concerns about racial inequality in regards to marijuana, she said.

Complaints about odor have come to Dhalac’s attention, she said.

“I had one complaint from a dog grooming business, which is right next to a marijuana business,” Dhalac said. “That really struck me really hard. A dog grooming business is saying it cannot stand the smell of this marijuana business.”

The council also discussed whether or not it supports combining marijuana retailers with apartment buildings, where residents may live atop a business.

Councilor Sue Henderson said she believes that the council may have made a mistake when approving the mixture.

Lewis agreed with Henderson’s point, she said.

“We’ve spent a lot of time on these ordinances, and I agree with Councilor Henderson that there were some things that maybe we shouldn’t have done now that we’re seeing the results,” Lewis said.

Using liquor stores an an example, Morgan argued that there shouldn’t be a concern about having an apartment in the same building as a marijuana establishment.

“I don’t seem to share the same concerns about mixing apartment buildings,” he said. “We have some strange mixtures already out there. We have folks who live above bars, and people fight outside of bars and sometimes inside of bars. And yet we’re not really concerned about the residents above them.”

Caricchio said that she agrees with Henderson. People may be willing to live in an apartment that is connected to a marijuana retailer simply because they have no other option, but she doesn’t find the situation to be ideal.

The majority of the council also supported changing the zoning map to prevent licensed marijuana storefronts from opening in specific districts, but no final decisions were made in the workshop.

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