A bid to bring marijuana businesses to Oberlin was debated Monday by city council.
Officials chose not to pass a resolution embracing the state’s new medical marijuana law and encouraging lawful operations within the city limits. Instead, they handed the issue over to the planning commission.
The Ohio legislature passed a law last year authorizing the cultivation, processing, testing, and dispensing of marijuana for medical purposes and research.
According to a memo to council from Oberlin law director Jon Clark, “The law does not permit the production, use, and distribution of marijuana for recreational purposes. Although the possession, use, and distribution remains illegal under federal law, the Department of Justice has encouraged federal prosecutors not to prosecute for the distribution of medical marijuana when authorized by state law.”
The new state law authorizes medical marijuana for the treatment of 23 qualifying medical conditions.
“This is usually the first step that states take, rather than jumping right into the real deal,” councilman Scott Broadwell said. “I think it’s a good process to follow.”
The new law allows the Department of Commerce to issue up to 24 licenses for cultivation and the State Board of Pharmacy to issue up to 60 licenses for the dispensation of medical marijuana in Ohio.
It’s those businesses that some members of council hope to woo to Oberlin.
“This, to me, is an economic development item,” councilman Kelley Singleton said. “There’s opportunities here for job creation, property tax, and sales tax. With other municipalities passing moratoriums, I think it’s important for us to state that we are open to development and to encourage developers to come here and give Oberlin a shot.”
Councilwoman Sharon Soucy agreed that the new law could lead to economic development in Oberlin. She cited opportunities in the past where council made similar decisions.
“We faced similar issues, both with Wal-Mart and with what was long ago called Mount Trashmore,” Soucy said. “We know that in declining to support what is now the (New) Russia Township refuse center, we lost millions over years and years and years. It moved just outside the city, where we have no control over it, and we can’t build marvelous lodges like (New) Russia Township can build, because they have the money for it.
“Similarly, we wrestled with the positives and the negatives of Wal-Mart and realized ultimately that if we didn’t let Wal-Mart develop, it would simply move a couple miles down the road to where Pittsfield would receive the benefits. And not only would we not receive the benefits, but more importantly we would have no control.”
While she showed support on the matter, Soucy still had concerns about regulation of legal marijuana and how it could affect young people.
“But I support, at this point, exploring it as an issue of economic development. I would look forward to getting more information about what exactly that means,” she said.
Council president Ronnie Rimbert doesn’t see medical marijuana as an economic development issue, though.
“I’ve studied this, and to me it’s not about an economic gain. I would say $1 million might bring in $25,000 into the coffers over the course of a year,” Rimbert said. “For me, it’s about the brand of Oberlin. What do we want as Oberlinians? What brand do we want? How do we want to be perceived?
“I don’t think it’s all about the money. I think if you want to follow the money, it can lead you to some very uncomfortable places.”
While the new law allows for the cultivation and dispensing of medical marijuana, there are stipulations on where those facilities can be placed.
The legislation prohibits medical marijuana facilities from being located within 500 feet of the boundaries of any parcel of real estate that contains a school, church, public library, public playground, or public park, Clark said in his memo to council. “These requirements will limit the areas potentially available for operations related to medical marijuana in Oberlin.”
It may do more than just limit — it may exclude Oberlin from having such facilities in the city entirely.
“I followed the development of the law as it made its way through the legislature and my initial understanding was that communities would have control over the siting of these facilities,” councilman Bryan Burgess said. “What we’ve ultimately been given are 500-foot exclusion zones from parks, schools, and the library. Based on the distribution of those areas in Oberlin, that covers most of the town.”
While some members of council identified the industrial parkway on Artino Street as the only possible location for medical marijuana facilities, Burgess said even that location could be off limits.
“Also to consider is the Unitarian Church on the corner of Orchard and Lorain, which would block out the entrance of the industrial park,” he said. “Depending on the definition, just outside the city limits — to the north of the industrial park — is the New Russia Township cemetery. If that is construed as a park by the state, that would likely block out much of the northern half of the industrial park.”
Burgess also questioned whether the Green Acres property could be considered a park. If it is, he feels that would block off another large portion of the city.
While the majority of council members said they supported bringing medical marijuana-related businesses to Oberlin, Rimbert wasn’t so quick to jump on board. He claimed to be playing devil’s advocate.
“Does this ultimately end up where we have to hire two more police officers? Do we have to beef up the security?” he said. “I don’t know. These are the kind of questions I would like to know.”
He also questioned whether current businesses in the industrial park would want such a business nearby.
“We talk about Artino Street. Maybe a facility like this going to Artino Street would cause some of the neighboring businesses there to leave,” Rimbert said. “Maybe they don’t want it. Maybe nobody else wants to come to Artino. Those are the questions that get me going.”
Finally, he questioned whether it could have an impact on families moving to Oberlin.
“Maybe young families don’t want to move to Oberlin at this point,” he said. “Maybe they don’t want that brand on their kids. ‘Oh, you’re from Oberlin? I know about that place.’ I’m just saying, these are the things that I think we all have to think about because we all have to live here.
“I’m playing the devil’s advocate because I think those things need to be said. I’m going to say them, and then we’ll go forward and see if this is something that ultimately comes to the forefront.”
REFERRED TO PLANNING
In the end, council unanimously voted to refer the matter to the planning commission and city staff for a review of the city’s current zoning regulations, an assessment of potential economic benefits to the city, and to make a recommendation back to city council.
Singleton said he would still like to see council pass a resolution stating the city is in agreement with the new law and welcomes developers.
“I would say just sending it to planning and having the planning commission look at it would show our interest in moving forward,” Broadwell said. “I’m not sure we need to make a broad proclamation of any sort. I would just like to get this to planning commission and have them look at the actual aspects of things and come back to us with a recommendation.”
Singleton was concerned that the planning commission wouldn’t tackle the issue in a timely manner, though.
“I don’t want this to go to planning commission and then come back to us three months later,” he said. “This is something we need to get in front of and let developers know that we will work with them. I think that is very important. I think it needs to come back quickly.”
Council was informed that the city’s planning director, Carrie Handy, has already been directed by the planning commission to begin considering regulations and economic impact such businesses could bring to Oberlin.
Scott Mahoney can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @sm_mahoney on Twitter.