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Md. pot commission chief: Zoning debates none of our business

OCEAN CITY — The director of Maryland’s medical marijuana commission said the panel will not get involved in local zoning issues on where cannabis growing and dispensing facilities can be located.

Hannah L. Byron told county officials from around the state that the Natalie M. LaPrade Medical Cannabis Commission would not develop regulations related to local zoning but would likely take into account whether an applicant for a license had county approval when making preliminary decisions as early as late December.

“I would argue that it is a local issue,” Byron said in answer to questions about whether the commission would get involved in zoning approvals.

Byron told county officials that state law requires licensed facilities “to meet all local zoning and planning requirements” but said she was concerned there were misconceptions about what cannabis dispensaries would look like.

“There are not going to be neon lights on Main Street,” Byron said. “These are going to look very much like a very boring medical building, medical doctor’s office in a commercial area.”

Byron made her comments in response to a number of questions from county leaders across the state all interested in how to proceed on zoning. State regulations for the program are expected to take effect in September and the commission will begin accepting applications for licenses to grow and distribute that same month.

Successful licensees will have 365 days from the date of preliminary approval to complete the process that includes securing financing and zoning approval in order to receive final licensing approval. Those first licenses could be issued as early as the middle of 2016.

Several counties have already had requests to approve medical cannabis facilities.

Last month, Washington County commissioners unanimously approved a plan to build a 52,000-square-foot growing facility that could ultimately expand to more than 170,000 square feet.

In Easton, a group is seeking permission to turn a vacant building that formerly housed Black & Decker into a growing facility. Two others are being considered in Kent County.

Maryland law allows for up to two dispensaries in each state legislative district — a total of 94 statewide. As many as 30 percent of those licenses could go in the 14 districts that are wholly within or shared by Baltimore City and County.

Baltimore County Councilwoman Vicki Almond has introduced a bill, believed to be the first of its kind in the state, that would attempt to impose zoning restrictions on where growing and dispensing facilities can be located.

The bill requires that growing or dispensing facilities be in certain zoning areas and be a minimum of 1,000 feet away from churches, schools, day care facilities and residential areas. The facilities would have to be at least 2,500 feet away from another similar operation. The bill would also restrict where marijuana-growing facilities could locate.

Critics of the bill, including Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin and Del. Dan Morhaim, have expressed doubts the measure is needed, questioned its legality and said that such a law, if passed, would make it virtually impossible to open a dispensary in the county.

Zirkin, D-Baltimore County and the chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, said in an earlier interview that he is considering legislation that would pre-empt a county’s ability to impose restrictive zoning laws on medical marijuana facilities.

Such a bill would likely face stiff opposition from local governments, which historically have fiercely fought attempts by the state to usurp local authority on land use.

Michael Sanderson, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties, said the organization has not taken a position on such issues but believes it would not be welcomed by local governments.

Almond, who attended the counties association conference, said she will move forward with the bill but said she will seek to amend it to ease the setback restrictions and other concerns.

“We are in charge of land use,” Almond said. “We have to look at zoning so we have control over where these facilities are located.”

Almond said that she might also consider mirroring the county’s Planned Unit Development process, which relies heavily on approval from council members representing districts where a project is to be built. She said it may be advantageous for county lawmakers to be able to have a stronger voice in the process if the commission is going to take local zoning approval into account with it comes to issuing licenses.