BERKELEY HEIGHTS, N.J. — Council members took the first step to deal with the state legislation legalizing recreational marijuana Tuesday night. Members voted unanimously to introduce an ordinance that prohibits all six of the activities permitted by the state legislature and amends current zoning ordinances to include the list of prohibited uses.
Now the real discussions can begin on what township officials and residents want to be allowed or prohibited when it comes to recreational marijuana.
Council members previously discussed the rules and regulations on recreational marijuana at two meetings — the first at the April 20 meeting of the council, which can be seen on YouTube here, the second at the May 4 meeting, which can be seen on YouTube here.
On April 20, Township Attorney Chris Corsini provided an overview of the types of activities permitted by the state, and the timeframe in which those actions need to take place. The state allows six activities related to cannabis:
Processing, manufacturing and packaging facilities;
Businesses involved in transporting cannabis in bulk to other licensed vendors.;
Retailing of cannabis items to the consumers themselves;
Cannabis delivery to consumers.
The town has until August 21 “to take whatever action you want to do … After that you are locked in for five years,” Corsini said.
At the May 4 meeting of the council Township Planner Keenan Hughes reviewed what had already been discussed — this time using the green and black slides which can be seen above.He said the township has until August 21 to do one of three things:
- Opt in by doing nothing, which means any or all of the activities listed above, which meet the existing zoning requirements are permitted for the next five years.
- Change zoning laws by passing an ordinance which will control what is permitted, including hours or operation, in what zone, as well as set the tax rate;
- Opt out, until the township has been able to draft an ordinance which addresses the zoning for these establishments and which, if any, of the six permitted activities, the council and residents want to have in the town.
The mayor and council members read statements on how each felt the township should deal with zoning issues related to the state’s legislation that legalized Recreational Cannabis.
Mayor Angie Devanney pointed out the “local piece of legislation must be passed by the Council via ordinance which requires an introduction and final adoption spanning two meetings of the governing body and a 20-day estoppel or waiting period, which essentially equates to one month.”
She compared the six-month implementation period permitted by the state for recreational marijuana to that of the “18-month implementation period the state allowed municipalities for the New Jersey plastic bag and straw ban to take effect May 2022.”
She took on the rumor mill which churned out misinformation designed to scare residents and said, “any discussion and final decision pro or against, must be steeped in the facts.”
She said the study and discussion of this topic should be conducted in conjunction with our Master Plan as our Planner will assist the Town in examining zoning and planning for the next decade” and called on volunteer professionals from the town to “help create focus groups and help shape a meaningful survey to get real feedback of our residents.”
Council President Jeanne Kingsley said “It is important to survey our residents and gather their views on whether or not to allow any or all of the six classes of licensed cannabis businesses in our town. It is critical that we take our time and are thoughtful in our decision-making process. It is likely that the feedback we receive today may be different from feedback we may receive in weeks or months from now, after more information is learned and the state continues to provide additional information around their processes and timelines (ex: Licensing).”
She said, “It would be premature, and dare I say ‘reckless’ to move too quickly until our residents have shared their feedback and until the state has finalized their rules and policies. We would hate to work hard now, then have to do it all again, once the State settles on a number of items.
Councilman Alvaro Medeiros said based on a better understanding of the facts and after talking with residents and hearing “the comments made during the last two Township Council meetings relative to the impact on municipalities of New Jersey’s CREAMM act’s, it has become clear to me that our first step as a municipality is to adopt an ordinance such as the one on tonight’s agenda that prohibits establishment of any operations related to the cannabis industry in our township.”
No one knows yet what “the Cannabis industry in New Jersey will look like,” especially since the “New Jersey Commission charged with formulating the rules and regulations for the sale and distribution only met for the first time in mid-April and until they adopt those rules and regulations sales may not start, and they may not be ready this year,” he said.
Opting out is only common sense, he said, and once that is done, the governing body should make sure the public is well-informed and that residents have as clear an understanding as possible of the ramifications of allowing any cannabis operators in the Township.” Medeiros recommended the township council hold listening sessions and conferences with experts in health and safety and in the industry. He also recommended the residents and/or smaller focus groups be surveyed on their preferences regarding any cannabis operations in the township.
Councilman Jeff Varnerin repeated a position he has stated before, “we must take a measured approach toward addressing legislation related to Cannabis businesses. I am willing to put aside my personal views in order to be objective with this topic.”
He added, “Legalization of cannabis use doesn’t equate to having cannabis business operating within Berkeley Heights regardless of the potential, modest at best, revenues.”
Before adopting any new ordinances, it is important for the council to have “thorough input from residents, objective assessments on our services and community impact analysis,” he said.
“Opting out now provides us the greatest opportunity to weigh the pros and cons in a measured way without triggering mandates from the state level. I support opting out,” he said.
Councilman Stephen Yellin said “I do support opting out of the state mandate” and will vote to opt out, because “we simply do not have the time for considering any other options.” He said he hopes and wants the community to have an “open and fact-driven discussion” before making a decision.
Meanwhile, he said the township should strengthen existing ordinances such as prohibiting smoking marijuana in our public parks. Currently, cigarette smoking and vaping are also permitted, which is an unfortunate oversight and should be corrected as soon as possible.”
There are also more urgent priorities — fixing roads, helping small businesses and more, he said.
Councilman Manuel Couto repeated what he said the previous meeting “This is not a pro or con vote about the need of the 2% additional tax revenue, or the vote against the medical needs of those in our community, or the recreational desires of the adult community, or even the NIMBY people.”
He provided a quick rundown of what the state has mandated with its legislation:
All prior zoning ruling on cannabis have been voided
By opting OUT of the one or more of the six classes; we can always opt back in; and
By doing nothing, we are allowing cannabis in all its forms to be dispensed in commercial and industrial areas in the township, for the next 5 years!
We need time to review the best practices of what other towns, or states, have done, as well as what the towns surrounding us are doing.
I believe time is needed to hear the community, to conduct a survey and review our own municipal ordinances. “
Councilwoman Gentiana Brahimaj said she agrees with those who spoke earlier and “will vote to opt out. I agree we need to start by putting out a survey to residents and get the communication committee to help and gather resident feedback before we move on.”
In the end, council members unanimously voted to introduce an ordinance which prohibits, “all cannabis establishments, cannabis distributors or cannabis delivery services … from operating anywhere in the Township of Berkeley Heights, except for the delivery of cannabis items and related supplies by a delivery service located outside of the Township. 2. Section 6.4.1 of the Municipal Land Use Procedures Ordinance is hereby amended by adding to the list of prohibited uses, the following: “All classes of cannabis establishments or cannabis distributors or cannabis delivery services as said terms are defined in section 3 ofP.L. 2021,c.16,but not the delivery of cannabis items and related supplies by a delivery service located outside of the Township.”
Residents had no questions about the ordinance during the Citizen’s Hearing. Although there was a question of whether any member of the governing body had a financial interest in any aspect of the cannabis business. All members of the council and the mayor said they had no financial interest in it.
The public hearing on and final adoption of the ordinance will take place at the council meeting scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 1. Members of the public are welcome to attend.