SOUTH BERWICK, Maine — A businessman backing two controversial petitions to allow recreational marijuana operations in town is defending his proposals amid widespread community opposition ahead of a Tuesday, June 8, vote.
Eric Bergendahl, owner of Nature’s Miracle on Ogunquit Road, said he put forth the petitions in response to years of stalled business growth due to a moratorium South Berwick imposed on new medical marijuana cultivation and production facilities.
In 2013, Bergendahl opened his first building for medical cultivation. In 2014, he opened a second building. It wasn’t until 2015, when he opened his third growth building, that a neighbor complained about odor, which was part of the reason the town enacted the moratorium on cultivation in 2017, he said.
With the moratorium still in place, Bergendahl’s plans to consolidate his three inefficient buildings under one 10,000-square-foot facility on the 40 acres of property where Nature’s Miracle sits have been halted — which, he said, prompted him to hire an attorney last year and seek advice.
‘A test of the will of the people’:South Berwick weighs recreational marijuana
“I didn’t want to be left without a business to be able to grow and move forward with,” Bergendahl said. “It would be much nicer to have the environment controlled under one roof.”
So he developed and submitted two petitions that will appear June 8 on the town’s ballot. The first asks voters whether the town shall enact a proposed ordinance on recreational marijuana retail stores, and the second asks whether the town shall enact a proposed ordinance on recreational marijuana cultivation and product manufacturing facilities.
The debate in South Berwick comes as a recreational marijuana shop is set to open any day in the neighboring town of Eliot, one of the first such shops in York County, according to Maine’s Office of Marijuana Policy.
Legal pot locally in Maine:Eliot recreational marijuana shop close to opening
Sticking points include zoning
The proposals have proven controversial in South Berwick, not just because they would open the door to non-medical cannabis commerce but also because they would allow recreational marijuana shops and cultivation facilities in any of the town’s zoning districts.
Both ordinances would prohibit recreational marijuana businesses from being within 500 feet of public and private school property, and cultivation and manufacturing facilities would have to have at least 5 acres of land.
Residents alleged during a hearing in March that nearly 700 lots could be eligible for adult-use marijuana under this new zoning ordinance, but Bergendahl’s new attorney, Seth Russell, said the actual number is much lower.
“The total actual number of lots that are 5 acres or more are only around 478, and that is before you take out all of the protected lands, lands that are owned by the conservation project and lands that are owned by the town,” Russell said.
Not one weed moratorium, but two
The South Berwick Town Council passed the moratorium on medical growth facilities in July 2017, according to council records. The moratorium allows existing facilities to function under state law, but it prohibits any new facilities or expansion of existing facilities.
In April 2021, the council enacted another moratorium, this time on medical marijuana retail stores.
Some businesses are already operating under the ordinance that outlines the rules for medical marijuana retail stores to operate in certain zoning districts in South Berwick — that ordinance was approved by the town on Jan. 14, 2020 — but the second moratorium hit pause on any pending applications for building permits, certificates of occupancy, site plans, conditional uses, or any other required approvals that must be submitted to the town for medical marijuana retail use.
Medical marijuana moratorium: South Berwick halts approvals of new shops
There had been an increasing number of requests to establish or expand medical marijuana retail stores since the town adopted its ordinance last year, according to the language of the moratorium.
Town Council Vice Chair Abigail Sherwood Kemble said the town needs a reasonable amount of time to understand the implications of medical marijuana. Sherwood Kemble has publicly opposed the adult-use ordinance proposals backed by Bergendahl.
Councilor wishes businessman had taken collaborative approach
Because of marijuana coming to South Berwick, public participation in local government has steadily increased since she was elected in 2018, Sherwood Kemble said. Participation is a good thing, but the recent petitions have caused a lot of confusion among residents, she said, adding that she wishes Bergendahl would have come to the council directly to work out a plan. Together, they could have come up with a transparent final product that works for everyone in town, she said.
“That’s really the way to bring it to the public,” Sherwood Kemble said. “There’s so many different aspects of medical marijuana policy issues going on at the same time … I’ve noticed that when people talk about it or when they have a question, they’re marrying and blending in a lot of these different avenues.”
Sherwood Kemble said the council wants residents to decide what suits the town and believes that, among other issues, the proposals backed by Bergendahl could conflict with the town’s comprehensive plan. Councilors will likely discuss marijuana in a comprehensive plan workshop meeting on July 28, Sherwood Kemble said.
Councilors have drafted revisions to the existing ordinance for medical marijuana cultivation and production facilities, and they are likely to propose the operations be allowed in South Berwick’s industrial zone alone, Sherwood Kemble said. The moratorium is extended until Aug. 20, 2021.
There will be a joint workshop between the council and the Planning Board on Wednesday, June 9 — the day after the town votes on Bergendahl’s proposals — to pull together their findings and discuss proposed amendments together.
Why he submitted his petitions
Bergendahl said the town’s code enforcement office was initially all right with issuing him licensing for his business in 2013. They also told him that receiving a license for a 10,000-square-foot facility on his property wouldn’t be an issue in 2015, he said.
Until the neighbor’s odor complaint after his third facility was up and running, there was no issue with the town or the neighbor, Bergendal said. The neighbor has since moved away, he said.
After checking in with the town every few months to see if there had been progress on the moratorium being lifted, Bergendahl said code enforcement told him nothing will happen unless he made it happen.
“So I did,” he said. “I went to my attorney and I got a referendum written … I had to get 10% of the voters’ signatures, and I got 30%.”
Although many voters told Bergendahl they didn’t necessarily support or oppose his petition, he said he’d give them the same speech: that, despite his proposals’ broad language, growth facilities wouldn’t actually be allowed just anywhere because of state and local guidelines already put in place and inherent limits in the amount of available land.
“You don’t have to agree with the petition,” he recalled telling them. “It’s just so we can get on the ballot and everybody can vote on it.”
Bergendahl purchased a building in Lebanon for recreational grows, which is where he plans to initially start cultivating. He hopes to open an adult-use storefront on his Ogunquit Road property if the South Berwick ordinance is passed.
If the petitions fail, Bergendahl said he may try again next year with revised language. But that scenario is unlikely, he added.
Bergendahl said he believes that no matter how the ordinance was written, it would likely not be approved by the voters or by the Town Council, unless it limited recreational marijuana businesses to the industrial zone only. That would exclude his property, which is in a residential zone (R5).
Even if the town lifts its moratorium on medical marijuana cultivation, if the ordinance is revised to allow facilities in the industrial zone alone, then Bergendahl will have many acres of land with nothing to grow on it, he said.
“I don’t understand why a rural route would not be considered,” he said. “This is agriculture.”
Bergendahl said he became a licensed medical marijuana caregiver in 2013. Before, he was a registered nurse for 26 years, specializing in ultrasounds and intravenous therapy in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine and Rhode Island, he said.
Bergendahl became interested in researching and learning more about alternative medicine while working as a nurse.
“I learned about the health benefits of cannabis when I was studying the uses of vitamin therapy to cure different types of diseases … I really gained a lot of interest and that was in the early 2000s, then when I moved to Maine,” Bergendahl said.
Initially, he was nervous to pursue this, fearing backlash from friends and family because of stigma related to the industry.
Bergendahl knew that passing recreational marijuana in South Berwick wouldn’t be easy, he said, but he wasn’t expecting the amount of organized opposition to become what it has. From his perspective, direct guidance from the state would’ve helped to avoid this, he said.
“I worried early on … the government did a good job of portraying it as an evil thing … I honestly believe the plant is a magnificent plant, and I just felt if anybody’s gonna look at it negatively, from a medical perspective, too bad,” Bergendahl said.