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TRAVERSE CITY — Medical marijuana dispensary owners in Traverse City who need more time to open because of the COVID-19 pandemic can get it.

City commissioners unanimously agreed last week to give them until Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order ends, plus 30 days, to finish.

That’s if they can make the case that their delay is for reasons beyond their control — city Clerk Benjamin Marentette said city ordinance allows extensions only for good cause.

“The way that staff, and that I would apply that would be very strict, meaning it would truly have to be circumstances outside of their control, not because they were way behind before the coronavirus already hit, that type of thing, or if they had some other issue that, really, they did have control over,” Marentette said.

Commissioners also agreed to city Attorney Lauren Trible-Laucht’s suggested language extending the deadline if Whitmer issues an executive order prohibiting the construction needed to finish the project, or making it impossible to become licensed and permitted.

City Manager Marty Colburn added the Grand Traverse County Building Department is moving ahead with occupancy permits for medical marijuana retailers after Colburn argued they’re medical facilities.

Commissioners originally considered giving medical cannabis dispensaries until Aug. 6 if they could justify it, but commissioner Brian McGillivary suggested a rolling deadline.

Tying extensions to COVID-19-related shutdowns didn’t sound right to Commissioner Ashlea Walter, she said. Construction delays in Traverse City were common enough even before the outbreak, she said.

Benjamin Joffe, an attorney for dispensary licenseholder Morenci Brothers Holding Group, said he thinks the extension should be a blanket one. Picking who has good cause would be too subjective, he argued.

McGillivary said some dispensaries were way behind in their land buys or construction starts.

Commissioners didn’t adopt a fee for the extension. McGillivary said he didn’t recommend one, having previously asked Marentette to calculate staff time costs. Marentette said his response of $800 wasn’t a recommendation.

City leaders also agreed to a moratorium on additional provisional licenses for medical marijuana retailers, from May 6 through Dec. 31. They approved it 6-1, with Walter voting against.

Traverse City ordinance originally provided for a lottery where each application was drawn and numbered in May 2019, with the top 13 cleared to proceed. The rest could have their shot if any of those 13 couldn’t open by deadline.

The moratorium will temporarily stop any licenses from getting reissued through the end date unless commissioners later vote to change it, Marentette said.

McGillivary asked for the moratorium because he wants more time to see what happens, both with state rules and with legal battles that could change how local governments can regulate recreational marijuana.

Trible-Laucht said a Kalamazoo lawsuit involved arguments that medical marijuana retailers are entitled to recreational sales licenses, too, regardless of whether local governments have moved to allow recreational businesses. A judge declined to issue an injunction, citing Kalamazoo’s expected June adoption of recreational cannabis rules.

Mayor Pro Tem Amy Shamroe echoed other commissioners’ concerns that this argument could result in a total of 20-plus medical and recreational marijuana sellers in the city.

Several public commenters spoke out against changing how leftover licenses are issued, including Kevin Blair, an attorney for the 14th medical marijuana applicant to be drawn. City leaders set up the rules the way they did and it’s very late — and unfair — to change the rules now, he said.

“The irony is that there were some points in the agenda packet that these amendments might reduce the risk of litigation,” he said. “I would say it’s actually the opposite.”

Walter also said she thinks the change is unfair, and said applicants have been waiting for a year for their chance.

It’s the state that’s potentially changing the rules, not the city, commissioner Tim Werner said. He supported slowing down the process to see what happens.

Commissioner Christie Minervini said she’s sympathetic with Blair, but also agreed that city leaders have to react to the changes around them.

“So I guess I am sympathetic to number 14 or 15 on the waitlist, but … I also feel like it’s our responsibility to look at the landscape in front of us and to make our decisions based on what we know now, not what we knew 16 months ago or 18 months ago,” she said.

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