HANCOCK — The Hancock City Council held their regular May meeting over Zoom on Tuesday evening. A number of matters were addressed including moving forward with scheduling the opening of the Hancock Campgrounds and the city’s spring clean up, pending further lifting of social distancing restrictions by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Perhaps the biggest single item on the agenda was the introduction of Ordinance 306. The ordinance, which would opts Hancock back in to the state’s legalization of recreational marijuana retail guidelines, has been a topic of discussion and division in the council and the general population since October and its voting has been rescheduled and tabled for just as long.

“Recreational marijuana has been a big issue in Michigan and the nation for some time and is not free from controversy,” Mayor Paul LaBine said in an email. “The vote was not an easy one for me as I truly listened carefully to those who opposed this ordinance and heard their concerns.”

An introduction of the ordinance was passed in a 4-3 vote during Tuesday Evening’s meeting. The introduction is the first step to potential accepting or rejecting the ordinance, pending a public hearing and a subsequent final council vote, neither of which have yet been scheduled.

“It could be the first step or it could be the last step,” councilor and ad hoc Recreational Marijuana committee member Will Lytle said in a phone interview.

The city’s ad-hoc Recreational Marijuana Task Force, in charge of conducting research and presenting the information to the public, consists of councilors Lytle, John Slivon, and Whitney Warstler, all of whom, with LaBine, voted in favor of introducing the resolution. Councilors John Haeussler, Ron Blau, and Dan Seguin voted against.

The ordinance as it stands does not impact the city’s zoning but uses the restrictions already put in place by the state, including a mandatory buffer between recreational marijuana retailers and schools or churches. Both churches and schools are present in the downtown area where current Hancock zoning would require such businesses to be located.

A survey was circulated in October in advance of a public informational session and a special council meeting later that month. Ordinance 306 was subsequently drafted and had appeared on the meeting agenda before though it was tabled because former counselor Stephanie Tubman stepped down due to health reasons, leaving an open chair on the council.

“We wanted to be sure that we had a full council when the ordinance was introduced,” said Lytle. The introduction had also been tabled while the council waited for information to made available by the State. “The state has finished with putting out its regulations. For a while it was unclear what it’s regulations were but now we know. We weren’t really getting any new information.”

Allowing recreational marijuana passed a state-wide referendum vote in 2018. The law, which gave individual municipalities significant control over how marijuana could be sold in their limits, also gave them the option to opt out.

Hancock was one of many Michigan cities to opt out, at least temporarily, to conduct research and decide how their local governments would approach regulation of marijuana retailers in the event that the city opted back in and how other municipalities reacted. Since then, most of Hancock’s surrounding communities have chosen to opt back in, including Houghton and Calumet.

“It’s a hard decision but we have to make it in a timely manner,” said Lytle. “If we wait much longer, we’re going to miss out on business opportunities.”

At least one potential buyer has already presented at Hancock City Council meetings, expressing interest in purchasing a main street property to open a retail outlet.

While attracting businesses to the downtown has been a long-term selling point for those in favor of opting in, a number of downtown businesses that are already established have voiced that they are against recreational marijuana retail, at least in the downtown area. Specifically, the Downtown Development Authority authored a letter to the council, encouraging them not to opt in, which was presented in October 2019.

“I understand it is a big new step for the City of Hancock concerning business development and it will not be free from challenges and obstacles,” said LaBine. “Regardless, I look forward to implementing and moving forward in that direction and continuing discussions with all residents of the city on this topic.”

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