Debate stemming back to last November on whether a medical marijuana grow facility is allowed in New Gloucester’s rural residential zone ended in a 3-2 Planning Board vote Tuesday to approve it.

Vice Chairperson Erik Hargreaves and members Dan Ellingson and Ben Tettlebaum voted to approve the facility, determining it had an allowable use “similar to a commercial greenhouse,” with Chairperson Don Libby and member Steve Libby voting against. Board members Douglas McAtee and Cassandra Liberty did not vote, and a call to Town Planner Natalie Thomsen to find out the reasons for their recusals was not answered.

The issue arose last fall when resident Scott Liberty applied to the board to construct a 7,000-square-foot metal building on his Penney Road property to be rented out to licensed cultivators of medical marijuana. The code enforcement officer at the time, Kate Matthews, who has since resigned, designated Liberty’s proposal as a “commercial greenhouse,” a use allowed in the rural residential zone.

The planning board gave Liberty’s project approval last fall, but on the basis of Matthews’ decision, had declined to hear arguments from the public about whether the property’s use was allowed in a rural residential zone. Abutter Julie Mason filed a lawsuit, claiming the planning board’s failure to consider the public’s arguments was a denial of due process. Abutters Max Estes and Rebecca Randall were also listed as plaintiffs in the suit.

A Maine Superior Court judge on July 19 remanded the issue back to the board to determine whether the use was allowed, in effect overriding Matthews’ previous decision. A public hearing in light of the court decision was held Tuesday night.

“A greenhouse is translucent and made of glass,” the plaintiffs’ attorney Larry Zuckerman said Tuesday night when arguing against Matthews’ classification of the building. “It’s clear Scott’s structure does not comply with the greenhouse definition.”

Resident Michael Arata, in a letter to the planning board that Thomsen, the town planner, read at the meeting, said Liberty’s proposed metal warehouse with no windows serves an industrial use, and not an agricultural one.

Liberty disagreed.

“This is clearly agricultural,” he said.

Other residents said a marijuana growing facility has no place in a rural residential zone.

Steve Hathorne, a New Gloucester selectman in the meeting audience, said the building is a non-residential use in a residential zone.  

“I feel like we’re trying to put bananas in a strawberry cake,” Hathorne said. “I just don’t like this particular project in this particular area.”

David Bartoletti, who lives across the street from Liberty’s property, restated concerns brought up in November about traffic coming in and out of the property, 24-hour lights, odors and the security risks associated with a building housing a large quantity of marijuana.

“This was the last thing we would expect for our neighborhood,” Bartoletti said, emphasizing the quality of life for his children ages 2 and 5, would be negatively impacted.

The Maine Superior Court’s decision also ordered the town planning board to reconsider the use of another application for a similar marijuana grow facility proposed for Tobey Road, which Matthews also previously designated as a “commercial greenhouse.”

Applicant John Lamparelli said his facility would have fume mitigation.

“A lot of these concerns are above and beyond the scope of what we’re trying to do,” Lamparelli said. “We’re not here to make things worse for anyone living here.”

The planning board determined a “use similar to a commercial greenhouse,” for Lamparelli’s building as well and approved it. Hargreaves, Ellingson and Tettlebaum voted for approval, with the Libby brothers against and McAtee and Liberty recused.

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