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RICHMOND — Meeting remotely on May 26, members of the Planning Board heard two applications for zoning ordinance amendments which would allow compassion centers to sell medical marijuana in zones where they are not currently permitted.

Coastal Farms LLC, which already operates a marijuana growing facility at 66 Kingstown Road, requested a special use permit which would allow a compassion center selling medical marijuana in a “planned unit development — village center” zoning district.

The second application, from Owen Long at 1195 Main Street, seeks approval for a special use permit to allow a compassion center within the general business zoning district. Medical marijuana cultivation is already a permitted use in the zone.

In February, the Town Council passed two zoning amendments pertaining to medical marijuana cultivation and sales. The first amended the existing zoning ordinance regulating marijuana cultivation to add a use code that defines the commercial cultivation of marijuana and permits cultivation in five zones: general business, light industrial, industrial, planned unit development village center, and flex tech.

However, the second zoning ordinance amendment prohibits medical marijuana sales from compassion centers in every district.

Three compassion centers are currently operating in Rhode Island, in Warwick, Portsmouth and Providence. There is no compassion center in southern Rhode Island, but the state plans to allow six additional compassion centers to open, one of which would be in South County.

One concern, expressed by members of the Town Council, some members of the Planning Board and Police Chief Elwood Johnson, is an anticipated increase in traffic. Both facilities would front congested Route 138 and would serve a regional clientele with customers coming from as far away as Connecticut.

J. Russel Jackson, the Newport attorney representing Coastal Farms, told the board that since only medical marijuana would be sold, the compassion center would not generate the same traffic volume experienced in Massachusetts communities, where recreational, or “adult use” marijuana is sold. Recreational marijuana sales are not permitted in Rhode Island.

“The volume of traffic coming into a compassion center is going to be much different than the volume of traffic coming into an adult use retail, which is open to the public for anybody to come,” he said. “From my point of view, when you see those horror stories of lines of traffic and causing significant impacts to surrounding neighborhoods, you’re looking at retailers in Massachusetts for adult use.”

Several board members said they were more comfortable with special use permits, because the proposals would be considered on a case by case basis and would still have to go through the development plan review process. In addition, Town Planner Shaun Lacey said that unlike uses which are permitted “by right” in certain zones, facilities operating under special use permits would be subject to the additional scrutiny that accompanies a special use permit.

“The intent of having a compassion center by way of a special use is that the town can evaluate the appropriateness of that type of operation on a case by case basis as opposed to allowing them by right, which the Town Council was not comfortable with earlier in the year,” he said.

Board Chair Philip Damicis said he felt that a compassion center would be no worse than a liquor store or pharmacy.

“CVS is selling opioids and obviously, opioids, painkillers, they have a use when prescribed properly and used properly,” he said. “And I don’t see medical marijuana as being any different than a pharmacy.”

The Planning Board vote was three in favor and three opposed to granting a special use permit for Coastal Farms. The split means that the board does not have an advisory opinion to submit to the council.

The second applicant, Owen Long, wants to build an indoor marijuana cultivating facility and proposes to operate a compassion center as well.

His property at 1195 Main Street is located in the general business zone, which includes multiple commercial properties.

Lacey explained, “The general business zone is largely comprised of properties that stretch along [Route] 138 in between the Stop and Shop Plaza, all the way westward to Hope Valley. So we’re not just limited to a singular property like what we’re doing with Coastal Farms. We have numerous properties that are zoned general business.”

The vote to approve a special use permit was three in favor and two opposed, but one of the board members lost internet connectivity and could not participate in the vote.

Lacey said the council would consider the applications but had not scheduled a public hearing.

“We haven’t brought forward a request to schedule a public hearing at this time to the Town Council, but that’s because we haven’t decided how we’re going to manage their agenda yet,” Lacey said. “At this point in time, we haven’t put an agenda request to them about scheduling it for a later meeting.”

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