Emotions High as Common Council Votes 6-1 to Prohibit Recreational Cannabis Commerce in Summit – TAPinto.net

SUMMIT, NJ – Emotions ran high at the December 1 Summit Common Council meeting, at which an ordinance to ban recreational cannabis outlets in the City was heard. The virtual meeting attracted members of the public from Summit and beyond wishing to comment on the issue and the Council’s proposed action.

Ward Two Council Member David Naidu moved the Administrative Policies & Communications ordinance to amend the DRO to prohibit the location of facilities that engage in the sale, growth, and distribution of recreational marijuana in Summit. Naidu explained the ordinance does not impact individual behavior, and does not affect the sale of medical marijuana. What it does do is determine if Summit should permit recreational marijuana establishments in any of the City’s business districts at the present time. Under the current DRO, there’s no restriction on such operations, so if an application were made to open one now, the City couldn’t prohibit it. This ordinance gives Summit “breathing room,” as well as the opportunity to see what is happening in other towns and discuss with residents what they want. “In short, it is the cautious approach.”

He pointed out that regarding revenue, nothing definitive has been decided by the state legislature, and the 2% tax under discussion hasn’t been made law. Naidu also addressed suggestions that Council is “ignoring the will of the people,” saying it’s unclear whether people approved the referendum because of chiefly because of its decriminalization element, as a previous effort to pass legislation legalizing sales without decriminalization failed.

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As to why the City didn’t simply restrict stores to certain locations, he suggested it would be unfair to burden only certain neighborhoods with such businesses. He also explained that the City isn’t making a judgment call on what people use, whether it’s tobacco, alcohol, or marijuana, but rather about determining a new land use in town and how it should be regulated. Naidu said it takes time to do a proper process, and that knowing all the facts and having a fully engaged community are important.

Ward One Council Member Danny Sullivan added that the potential 2% tax could be optional, pitting town against town if a neighboring municipality chooses not to adopt it. Further, “there will be costs,” he said. “We already wring our hands over adding City staff”; this will require additional headcount in several departments. He also mentioned he’s heard of backpedaling in Trenton regarding the 2%. “We don’t know what we don’t know,” he said, saying that if it is successful in neighboring communities, Summit can amend its ordinance.

Beth Little, Council Member at-Large, stressed this is a vote for “not yet,” not “not ever.” Having followed the issue for several years through organizations like the American Planning Conference and the Municipal League, she observed that towns moving forward towards recreational sales have had a great deal of community involvement already. This includes groups working on figuring out what retail sales would look like, meetings with potential licensees, and other activities which have not yet happened in Summit.

Greg Vartan, Ward Two Council Member, acknowledged that marijuana use, like tobacco and alcohol, carries considerable health and safety risks. However, he pointed out that both tobacco and alcohol are sold legally throughout Summit, and the revised DRO permits breweries downtown. “Marijuana is not more harmful than these other industries that we welcome with open arms. I know that for many people who voted yes on the ballot question but oppose marijuana businesses in Summit, this is less a moral question than a practical matter.” While sharing many of their concerns, Vartan expressed confidence that proper restrictions and enforcement, as for any other business, would be in force. He added, “there are only two ways for municipal government to get more annual revenue – residential tax increases or commercial taxes. In the midst of a global pandemic, with severe consequences for municipal finances, I do not think this is the time to close the door on an entire industry that will provide additional commercial tax revenue even if we do not know exactly how much it is.”

Council President Marjorie Fox opened the hearing to public comments, warning speakers there would be a three-minute time limit enforced. First to speak was Jamie L Vansciver of Paulsboro, NJ, who described herself as a medical cannabis patient “scared” by this ordinance, and urging empathy for cancer patients and veterans in the community. When Fox interjected that this ordinance has nothing to do with medical marijuana, Vansciver countered, “I think all use is medical… Look into the anatomy of the human body. You have an endocannabinoid system,” before being cut off by Fox.

Patrick Duff of Haddon Heights, NJ, spoke of living in California where he owned and operated seven different dispensaries. He claimed each one made the community in which it operated better. “Looking at the faces upon this Zoom meeting, I will say that several of you people have used cannabis in your life, and hundreds if not thousands of your community members use cannabis.” He suggested the proposed ban is based on “a stigma created almost a hundred years ago” to create fear about cannabis and that justice for minority users demands the complete legalization of marijuana.

Annette Dwyer, Maple Street, spoke in support of the ordinance. In the absence of this ordinance, “there could be exponential risks of propagation of cannabis in our midst.” She feared decisions could be made by landlords and tenants to grow and distribute marijuana, and without oversight, “the risks would be difficult to reverse.” She also worried about use spreading to schools and other community gathering places, citing parallels with the use of vaping and e-cigarettes. As the chair of Shaping Summit Together, Dwyer said she and her organization work to protect youth and families and encourage safe and healthy choices thought their lives.

Chris Almada of Dover, NJ, is also a medical patient who said the proposed ban “blows my mind… Nobody stops to think about the person in the wheelchair or the cancer patient trying to get what they need.”

Gio Sce, Glenside Avenue, said he found it “hypocritical” to say citizens want to decriminalize marijuana “but not in my town.” He added that if every town waits to see what the other does, “there’s nowhere to start.”

Chris Velasquez of Dover, a medical marijuana patient, said he understood the ordinance didn’t concern medical cannabis but suggested it be tabled and then continued to discuss medical applications. He suggested medical users needed to speak on behalf of those who wished to use it recreationally but who feared to speak out.

The many speakers focusing on medical use began to chafe Naidu, who stressed that the ordinance provides for medical dispensaries in any business district. He suggested people go to the City website and actually read the ordinance, and then comment.

Ryan Felmet, Madison Avenue, observed that many municipalities enacted ordinances like this one in 2018 when the state was attempting to pass a law decriminalizing use. Agreeing with Vartan that the people have spoken, he said this is the time for the elected officials to carry out the wishes of their constituents. He felt confident that “we can handle this. We need to educate ourselves; we need to learn more. The urgency to do this now does not make a lot of sense to me.” He encouraged Council to “table this discussion and have more meaningful meetings with the people in Summit who have already voiced their concern on the ballot.”

Hugh Giordano of Blackwood, NJ, is a representative of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 152, which represents cannabis workers. He spoke against the ordinance, pointing to the many towns and states that have introduced recreational marijuana successfully. He stated the industry can provide unionized jobs with good wages and benefits.

City Clerk Rosemary Licatese reported that she received 28 emails regarding this ordinance before the deadline for commenting, with 27 opposed and one in favor, from both residents and others. Two emails, one for and one against, were received after the deadline. She read a representative email from each side. In support was Gwen Vanvolkenburgh, Dale Drive, writing she agrees that Summit should ban the growth, sale, and distribution. Representing the opposition was Josie Coates, Elm Street, writing, “I fervently believe having a dispensary town would benefit our residents.… She asked whether Summit, if it banned sales in town, would also refuse any state funds derived from marijuana sales. She decried the loss of revenues if residents went to nearby towns for their marijuana purchases. Regarding those concerned about “the moral aspect of drugs in this community,” she pointed to Merck, Celgene, and Bristol Meyers Squibb’s long history in Summit. Coates suggested any tax revenues could be spent on drug education and addiction rehabilitation.

Joanne Zito of Elmwood Park, NJ, an advocate with the Coalition for Medical Marijuana-NJ, spoke against the ordinance. She said many people use cannabis medically for conditions such as glaucoma, without a prescription, to “stay off harder drugs or alcohol” and that cannabis is preferable to opioids.

Jeffrey Lopez, Eaton Court, said as a first responder, he’s seen firsthand the dangers of black-market cannabis and the debilitating nature of addiction. A dispensary would allow regulated cannabis that would be safer than what’s already here illegally. He also spoke on behalf of those who use non-prescribed marijuana for medical relief, as even medical marijuana isn’t covered by most insurance plans, advocating for private cultivation. Fox interjected that neither this ordinance not the ballot question have anything to do with growing marijuana at home, which remains illegal.

Mayor Nora Radest, while appreciative of the input, said to those who live elsewhere, “you don’t know Summit and I take offense” that they assume the City leadership doesn’t work hard to be transparent and to find out what’s best for the town. “So while you may have statistics about the City of Summit, you do not know this community.” She emphasized the need to find out whether residents voted for decriminalization or for the sale of marijuana in town as well as to find out what the state is thinking, adding that if the ordinance is not passed, when the bill is passed by the legislature, Summit will have to live with whatever is in it. Noting that Council heard from about 40 people during the meeting, in person or by email, and only about half live in Summit, she said, “I’m really happy you were here tonight… but we need to find out what the rest of the community feels, and that will take some time.” Addressing Council directly, she said, “I encourage you to pass this ordinance tonight.”

Ward One Council Member Susan Hairston asked if there were elements of concern to the Police Department, and about plans for community education. Naidu replied that the committee did not meet with Bartolotti in the absence of clear guidance from Trenton. “We’re taking a cautionary approach.” Once more is known of what Trenton is doing, including what revenues might be realized, Naidu said, the City would proceed as it has with topics such as the Park Line and the Master Plan, holding workshops to gather public input. That can’t be done until the parameters from the state are known. Then issues like sites, hours, and parking can be considered. He reiterated that there is no interest in holding up medical marijuana, but that “for recreational marijuana, we need a dialogue… with a highly engaged community.” Hairston asked again if policing and enforcement had been considered and Naidu reiterated the ordinance deals purely with land use. He called on City Counsel Matthew Giacobbe to explain further.

Giacobbe described how for years, the ordinances in effect when a zoning application was approved continued to apply to that site, even if the ordinance was later changed. Several years ago, the law was changed so that the controlling ordinances were those on the books at the time of application. He further explained that if someone were to apply to open a recreational marijuana store and there were no ordinance banning that use, the town would be forced to allow it. This ordinance “puts a brake” on recreational marijuana, protecting the City so it can proceed in a more orderly fashion to determine its zoning for that business – unless the state decides to control siting. When the legislation is passed, Council can evaluate that and make any changes to the ordinance it deems necessary.

Hairston asked what other industries are banned in Summit. Fox reeled off adult entertainment, fast food drive-ins, and strip malls as examples of legal businesses “that we have made the determination at some point in our zoning that it’s not consistent with the character of our community. It’s not an accident that our community looks the way it does.” Hairston agreed and continued, “That’s the one thing that I want Council to pay attention to, that we be very careful not to confuse the character of the users as somehow not appealing to Summit.” Fox replied, “Please do not put those words in our mouths. I think we’ve all been very clear that this is not a moral decision, this is not a decision on how we feel about cannabis. This is a decision to preserve the zoning of our community until we have enough information to make a reasoned decision with members of the community.”

The ordinance passed with Vartan’s the sole “nay” vote.

Other Ordinances and Resolutions

Also heard was a Capital Projects & Community Services ordinance moved by Little to repeal and replace the Development Regulation Ordinance (DRO) previously adopted late in 2019. The 2019 ordinance was a “wholesale revision” of the DRO. Since then, the DRO has been corrected and revised to ensure consistency and clarity. Because of the number of minor typographical and format changes, it was decided to repeal and replace the DRO to streamline the process. Little noted a few more significant changes, including defining “brewery” and adding that as a permitted principal use downtown, refining the preservation easement definition, and revising the front-façade dormer allowance. She called the final product a “thorough and well-read document,” while noting it continues to be “a living document” with quarterly reviews.

Naidu observed these land use regulations govern how things should be constructed, to “make sure we have a character and nature in town that suits our community.”

Ward Two Council Member Stephen Bowman, as Historic Preservation Commission liaison, expressed appreciation for the easement definition as it “gives us a lot more direction.”

Several residents addressed the portion of Springfield Avenue proposed for rezoning from ORC1 (Offices of Residential Character) to R10. Ralph Walter, Springfield Avenue, is an architect who worked on the restoration of the old Town Hall and who has chaired the Historic Preservation Commission. He described the intent of the ORC zone as maintaining the facades of the late 19th century houses at the end on Springfield. He fears the new zone would allow the removal of the homes and replacement by new structures not in character with the neighborhood.

Diane Lioudis, also of Springfield Avenue, favors the new R10 zone, observing that the existing zoning hadn’t entirely protected the old homes. She asked whether the property owner of 603 Springfield will still be allowed to build the four townhomes previously approved if the zone changes to R10. City Planner Tom Behrens indicated the project is still pending due to structural issues, but the applicant’s approval would remain if he moves forward with his present plan. However, if a new application were to be submitted to the zoning or planning board, it would have to adhere to the new ordinance. 

Melissa Spurr, Woodland Avenue, was concerned the R10 zone doesn’t adequately address preservation of character like the ORC zone or the 2016 master plan. Behrens explained when the ORC was created primarily to address a single house, since demolished. The remaining six lots in the zone hold three homes, a church, and two more homes that will remain in the ORC1 zone, so only three parcels are really affected by the change. As the ORC is defined, homes can be demolished and replaced with single-family homes. Incentives created to let developers maintain the older homes with mixed use, such as dentist’s offices, did not work, leading the City to reconsider making the zone strictly single-family residential. Spurr followed up by asking if new structures would have to retain a character “appropriate to the Summit architectural landscape.” Behrens pointed out that the new DRO includes design criteria to be applied City-wide to promote design features characteristic of the City.

Ryan Brown, Springfield Avenue, expressed worries about changes in the character of the neighborhood and in home values, fearing it “may be moving closer to a very dramatic change in the neighborhood, one that we would not be ready for.” Behrens replied that the intent is to minimize the scale of what could be built by allowing only single-family development on these parcels. “The City’s goal is to adhere to the concerns of the neighborhood.”

Naidu was on the planning board when the issue of Springfield Avenue development came up several times. He saw that residents were frustrated because the ORC didn’t accomplish what it was supposed to. He said Brown’s concern is over potential new construction that would have been allowed by the ORC, not the new R10 zoning. Fox, who sat in the planning board last year, noted the ORC allowed larger development and called the R10 “actually a really good solution.” She added, “It’s not an accident why our community looks the way it does…it’s intentional.”

The ordinance passed unanimously.

Three ordinances were introduced and unanimously approved for hearing at the December 15 meeting. Two were Finance ordinances moved by Vartan. The first would declare a COVID-19-related “special emergency” appropriation of $850,000 to offset lost Parking Authority revenues resulting from the pandemic. State law permits this appropriation, which would be paid back in $170,000 increments over five years starting in 2022. Vartan said we “all believe exercising this option is the most responsible course of action.”

His second ordinance would amend the procedure for bill payments to comply with laws for prompt payment by requiring bills to be presented for approval by the close of five business days before the common council meeting, rather than the Friday before the meeting as is currently mandated.

O’Sullivan introduced a Community Programs & Parking Services Committee ordinance to amend the City code to allow overnight parking on specific streets for people who living in buildings with ten or more residential units. It would also increase, for the first time since 2006, quarterly overnight parking permit fees from $75 to $100 (from $56.25 to $75 for senior citizens). It would go into effect January 1, 2021. This introduction was enthusiastically supported by Vartan and Hairston.

Vartan moved four Finance resolutions. The first approved the City Chief Financial Officer’s certification of COVID-19-related revenue losses and expenses and authorized her to submit an application to the New Jersey Division of Local Government Services for the “special emergency” appropriation. The second approved the schedule of school tax levy payments by the City to the Summit Board of Education for the first half of 2021. The city Collects the tax and distributes it to the school board on the first business day of the month; in 2021 monthly payments will be $5,572,720 for a January-to-June total of $33,436,320. Also authorized were 2021 municipal, sewer, parking, and school debt service payments. Vartan’s final resolution authorized a professional services agreement for tax appeal counsel for 2021 with the City’s current counsel, DiFrancesco, Bateman, Kunzman, Davis, Lehrer & Flaum, P.C. The contract is not to exceed $140,000, the same as the current contract.

O’Sullivan moved a single Community Programs & Parking Services resolution to authorize a month-to-month contract, not to exceed $6,600, with Lyft for ridesharing services from December 3, 2020, to December 2, 2021. The current contract expired on December 2. This lets the City continue to offer this service at a minimal cost, provides some budget relief for Parking Services, and lets the City monitor the number of rides on a monthly basis. When the pandemic begins to ease and ridership and its associated costs begins to rise, Summit has the option to issue an RFP for rideshare services.

Vartan voiced his support for this resolution, noting that even though there is currently ample parking capacity, people are still using the service, indicating there are residents who rely on ridesharing for transportation. He also called the resolution an example of “balancing managing the crisis right now while leading for the future,” ensuring that the service will be in place when demand rises again.

Hairston offered three Safety & Health resolutions. Her first appointed Ximena Jaramillo as a probationary police officer beginning in January. Born in Colombia, Jaramillo and her parents came to the Unites States when she was a middle schooler. The family initially lived in Morristown but moved to Summit as she was beginning high school. Jaramillo graduated in the Class of 2010, then attended Fairleigh Dickinson University, graduating with a major in criminology and minors in forensics and psychology. She joined the SPD auxiliary in May 2017 and has participated in numerous departmental and City events. Little called her the “most impressive candidate,” describing her as “poised, smart, and compassionate.” Police Chief Andrew Bartolotti added she’s been a valuable auxiliary officer for three years and will be even more so as an officer.

Hairston’s next resolution authorized the emergency purchase of a 2020 Ford Utility Police Interceptor vehicle for $32,940, replacing a vehicle declared a total loss by the municipal insurance carrier following an accident. The car will be purchased from Koch 33 Ford rather than the state contractor because the contractor, while slightly cheaper, can only make delivery in four to five months, while Koch can deliver now. The purchase is covered by the insurance settlement. Vartan, pointing out that this vehicle replaces one of three totaled in response to a stolen vehicle incident in which two officers were seriously injured, urged listeners to lock their cars.

Finally, Council considered a resolution to amend the professional services agreement with LeMay Erickson Willcox, the architectural firm designing the new firehouse. The architect incurred $52,415.40 in additional fees for preparing construction documents for breaking our radiant heating as an option in the bid documents, “value engineering” to bring the project under budget, and in reimbursable allowances. Little clarified that radiant heat, which costs more to build but saves costs in the long run, was originally included in the proposed plans. It was removed to save costs, but made a separate item for bidding so its true cost could be evaluated.

Little had a trio of Capital Projects & Community Services resolutions. First was the authorization of an expenditure of $191,672 from the Affordable Housing Trust Fund for affordability assistance for a two-family house at 31 Russell Place for a period of 30 years. This is the offsite affordable housing for the condos at Franklin Place and was taken over by the Housing Authority. City Engineer Aaron Schrager clarified that this is for ongoing maintenance.

Her next resolution authorized a Community Development Block Grant application for $4,000 for the Senior Connections bus and $10,000 for the Share the Fun Club, both operated through the Department of Community Programs. Finally, Council declared a vacancy in the Division of Public Works, Municipal Disposal Area Unit, filling an opening created by the recent promotion of Michael Caputo.

All resolutions passed.

Public Comment

Jim Bennett, Fairview Avenue, said during public comments that he believes the short- and medium-term solution to ongoing power outages is more aggressive vegetation management. He has submitted a proposed ordinance regarding that for committee consideration.

Other Business

In her Mayor’s Report, Radest revealed the Westfield Regional Health Department reported 215 COVID-19 cases in Summit in November, the single largest increase since the pandemic began. This brings the total to 734 cases since March. She noted that in the early days of the pandemic, people lacked PPE and information about masking’s and social distancing’s role in preventing the spread of the virus, but now it’s “within our control to control it.” The DPW recently posted “wear a mask” yard signs throughout the city. She urged those testing positive for COVID to respond to contact tracers; in November, tracers were unable to reach 38 patients and another six people refused to cooperate. Reminding listeners about how much Summit residents do to help one another, she stressed the need to continue to work together to take preventive measures against the virus as well.

The City’s Department of Community Programs is holding ’Outdoor Pictures in the Park with Santa’, a registration only event on the Village Green featuring 25-person, 30-minute time slots from 3 – 5:30 p.m. Radest will light the town tree — estimated to occur at approximately 4:30 p.m. At the time of publication, space remained in only the 4:30 and 5:30 p.m. time slots.

The Menorah on the Village Green will be lit for the first time on December 13 at 6:30.

City Administrator Michael Rogers reported all City Hall offices are closed to the public due to the pandemic. Most activity can be completed online through the city website or by phone. The DCS counter is open daily from 7 to 4 for limited document drop off and essential in-person business as listed on the City website.

The 2021 preliminary capital budget workshop will be held via Zoom on Wednesday, December 9, at 6:30 p.m. The public is invited to participate.

Fox announced that the Summit Policemen’s Benevolent Association #55 and Firefighters Mutual Benevolent Association #54 are hosting the annual U.S. Marine Toys for Tots holiday toy drive through December 14.

She reported that the council and mayor have held the first of two annual appointment meetings for Summit’s many volunteer boards and committees. She was pleased to see an increased number of applications for positions.

In closing comments, Naidu honored the memory and service of Board of Health member Dr. Hemant Kairam, who passed away suddenly on November 29.

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