Two amended ordinances that prompted protest at previous West Milford Council meetings were adopted in a 4-1 council vote on March 16. The latest action amended the law to allow cannabis businesses to operate as a permitted use in all township zones except residential. Mayor Michele Dale informed the speakers - who raised questions and asked the council to delay a decision on the ordinances until there was further study – that they were too late to stop cannabis regulations from being adopted. She said that already happened awhile ago and what was before the council at the latest meeting were amendments to already existing laws. Only Councilwoman Marilyn Lichtenberg voted against passage of the amended ordinances.
During public comments, audience speakers were cordial for the most part, although definite in their goal to prohibit cannabis businesses in the township. However, a few persons suggested or questioned if council members might be passing the laws for their personal gains. The council, especially Councilman Warren Gross, did not take this lightly. Gross said that accusations that council members might be acting for their own benefit should become the subject of a lawsuit for defamation, and anyone making the allegations could be subject to a lawsuit.
Councilman Kevin Goodsir was visibly hurt by the insinuations in light of his long record of volunteerism and community service. Responding to the allegations, Councilman Michael Chazukow said the local governing board plays by the rules and “nobody gets together,” as a speaker suggested. He said he has studied the cannabis subject for two decades. The reality is that cannabis is here, and without local government controls, the problems and fears the speakers at the meeting described will happen.
In response to charges from audience speakers that they were not well informed about proposed ordinances to control cannabis businesses, Chazukow responded that when the original ordinances to control cannabis were first discussed in great detail by the council at public meetings three years ago, no one came to council meetings to hear discussions, ask questions or voice concerns. Councilwoman Lichtenberg also mentioned this lack of public interest at an earlier meeting.
Chazukow said that by passing laws to control cannabis activities in the township, the council is giving enforcement agencies the control power they need, which is what the residents have, in so many words, been asking for. He said he respected people bringing their concerns and noted that cannabis is medicine for some people suffering from cancer and other diseases. Chazukow said the hundreds of people who smoke do not wind up addicted to drugs. He said the public is asking for control and that is the purpose of the council’s action.
Councilman Dave Marson said the council is trying to act in a responsible way, but people cannot expect the government to do everything, and they must take some personal responsibility.
Among public speakers opposing cannabis businesses was a woman whose son, at 27, died of a drug overdose, leaving a four-year-old son. She noted that Route 23 in the township is often called “Heroin Highway.”
Patricia Wenzel, also displeased with the cannabis business decision, suggested doing more to protect the safety and health of the community. She opposed allowing cannabis businesses to be 500 feet from parks and 1000 feet from schools. Given statistics, she said, these businesses should be at least a half miles from parks, schools, day care centers, recreation centers, churches, beaches, playgrounds or any facility where children under 15 gather. She wanted clarification about annual odor/toxin monitoring requirements.
Wenzel strongly objected to the ordinance amendments. Shifting from a conditional to a permitted use in most zones will make opening cannabis retail stores too easy, and liability needs research, she said. Regulatory board determination of community benefit is lacking. The council majority made “an irresponsible decision,” she said.
Corinna Castagna presented information about cannabis water needs and asked the council to consider environmental impacts. She reported that a single cannabis plant uses about six gallons of water daily during the 150-day June through October growing season, 900 gallons of water per plant. West Milford will have a 365 day growing season in climate controlled facilities, with a single plant using two thousands of gallons a year.