BIG RAPIDS – The Big Rapids planning commission took no action on a proposal to make changes to the city’s ordinance regulating marijuana sales and dispensing, saying they need more time to consider the issue.
“I am not in a hurry to make a decision about this topic,” chairperson Chris Jane told the planners during a recent meeting. “There have been times over the last couple of years where we thought we wish we had a do-over.”
During the meeting, Paula Priebe, the city’s community development director, told planners that in establishing the regulations for marijuana businesses, the city had adopted a series of ordinances to allow for some types of marijuana businesses and disallow others. But when the pandemic hit a lot of that was “shook up a bit,” she added.
Priebe and city attorney Eric Williams have been compiling a list of things that needed to be tweaked, she said.
“We have had a couple of years of the ordinances being in effect and could see what we got right and what we might need to tweak a little bit,” Priebe said. “Most of those are procedural things – making sure the terminology is the same across all ordinances, however, there is one substantive change that is being proposed.”
Priebe explained the current ordinance, as it is written, does not allow any drive-thru, drive-up or curbside services.
“Those were all prohibited in the ordinance that was adopted in 2019,” she said. “Then the pandemic happened and every business across every sector started doing curbside pick up for the public health and safety. The state allowed it, and so the city has been allowing it, and it has been allowed for marijuana businesses to engage in curbside service.”
She said she has informed all the marijuana business owners that they were operating under emergency rules and at some point the city would have to circle back and address the issue in the ordinance.
“As the pandemic lingers, and the emergency rules are being phased out, we cannot continue to not enforce the ordinance,” she said. “The ordinance as it stands does not allow curbside service.”
Priebe presented three options for the planners to consider:
• Leave the ordinance as it is and prohibit any and all curbside sales and dispensing of marijuana.
• Amend the ordinance to allow curbside sales and dispensing of marijuana for all marijuana retail businesses.
• Amend the ordinance to allow curbside sales and dispensing of marijuana for only businesses that have their own private parking spaces that can be designated for curbside service and have the curbside designation on their permit.
The suggested proposal from city staff would be to amend the ordinance to read that “all activities, including all sales shall be conducted inside the building and out of public view,” Priebe said.
The phrase “drive thru and curbside service are prohibited,” would be removed, and the language, “curbside sales of marijuana and marijuana infused products are lawful with an approved curbside sales and dispensing designation as approved by the city code” would be added.
“This is kind of a middle ground where some businesses, if they have their own parking that wouldn’t interfere with public parking such as what we have on the downtown streets, would be allowed,” Priebe said. “They would have to let the city know as part of the permitting process, that they are doing this, and it would require certain regulations, such as having spaces designated and making sure there is security – things they probably already do.”
EITHER ‘BE IN OR OUT’
Several planners said they were not in favor of the middle ground option because it would impact some businesses more than others, specifically in the downtown area where they do not have off street parking.
“I think we should either allow it or not allow it,” planner Jacob Buse said. “I think the middle ground would be unfair to some businesses just because they are in a different location. I am on the side of not allowing it, because I can’t go to Shooters and order five beers to go.”
Planner Kasey Thompson said she also did not like the middle ground option and agreed that the city should either “be in or out.”
“I am for ‘in’ because I think there are far more benefits to the community if it is done right, versus not supporting them (marijuana businesses),” Thompson said. “I am an advocate of commerce and an advocate of this community, and if we don’t evolve and we don’t take steps forward, we are going to find ourselves in the situation where we have empty buildings everywhere. We will be back at square one.”
Thompson added she loves to see cars in the downtown area because they represent growth and energy and if all the cars go away, then other businesses will lose out, as well.
“Anything we can do to help keep this a driving economy, anything we can do to support (businesses) within the legal boundaries that we have, I think we should support them,” she said. “It is actually good for the health of the community that we help these businesses grow. It is not going to look good if we have a bunch of empty buildings and we lose that part of our economy.”
Jane added he is not a fan of the middle ground plan because he believed it would bring an outcry from people in the industry.
“We have already had two (businesses) that have given up, and we had a couple of others that gave up before they even got started,” Jane said. “I don’t want to see that. I don’t want that industry to die.”
Some planners said they felt the ordinance should be enforced as it stands, without making any amendments.
“When we were first involved in this, I would reference back to what we allow our restaurants and bars to do, because I like businesses to be treated equally,” planner Rory Ruddick said. “I don’t think we allow curbside delivery from Grunst or any of those businesses.”
Planner Sarah Montgomery agreed, saying she felt that any amendments to the ordinance would just add another element that leaves the city open to criticism.
“I am not opposed to that (marijuana) business,” she said. “I just think it is more classy if the businesses have their customers come into their building. We had them meet standards of how their buildings could look, why not have a more professional stance on how they meet the needs of their customers.”
MEDICAL AND MOBILITY ISSUES
Representatives from several local marijuana businesses weighed in with their thoughts about the proposed changes, telling the board that 20% to 25% of their total sales comes from curbside service, and that it is an important part of their business.
Justin Forrest, a manager at RAIR, encouraged the board to consider the needs of the medical marijuana patients when making their decision because that issue had not been addressed.
“We are a medical marijuana facility. We have state licensed medical patients that have some restrictions as far as mobility that are big proponents of the curbside option,” Forrest said. “They may have a disability where they are not able to exit the vehicle and come into the store and this has been a huge help for our patients and the folks that shop with us.”
Forrest added in response to the “hustle and bustle of marijuana sales people coming in and out of the store” that was mentioned in the discussion, that they try to keep it “classy.”
“When a car pulls up into the designated spot, they call us and someone greets them with an iPad,” he said. “It is a pretty discrete transaction, and the product is (delivered) in an enclosed bag.”
Joseph Stankowski, a district manager for Lume Cannabis Company, said they are also a medical dispensary, and a large percentage of their curbside business is utilized by their medical patients that may have physical or mental issues that keep them from coming inside the store.
“I second the notion about medical patients,” Stankowski said. “But Lume supports the decision the city makes no matter what direction they see fit.”
Andrew Labeck, a manager at Dunegrass, told the board that even though they are recreational only, they still get a lot of customers that are medical license holders and have medical issues that make them uncomfortable about coming in the store, or unable to do so.
“At the end of the day, we do have private parking, so if you wanted to do the private parking curbside only, that works for us, but I think that is not the best way to go because it gives an unfair advantage for some businesses over other businesses downtown,” he said. “We, too, will support whatever decision the city makes.”
Nathan Kark, director of government affairs for Skymint, echoed those same thoughts, saying that during the pandemic curbside service has become more and more popular.
“Everyone does a great job in this community of creating great stores that are aesthetically pleasing and we are happy to show off our stores, but we also need to be mindful of what our customers want and try to offer that,” Kark said. “That (curbside service) is something that has stuck around, and a lot of our customers have become accustomed to that, and it is something they have come to expect. So, I think it is important to give them those options.”
Planner Megan Eppley said she felt like the medical and the mobility issue was something very important for them to consider before making a decision.
Jane agreed saying the curbside sales numbers is also something important to consider.
“I would say that it (mobility issue) moved my needle more toward amending the ordinance to continue it as it has been for the last year or so,” Jane said. “And 25% of sales is not nothing. That is all good information for us certainly to consider.”
Area resident Katie McCloud asked the board to consider a couple of other things before making a decision, referencing previous comments made about sales people “scurrying” in and out, and comparing the transactions to a crack house or street sales of heroin.
“I have never been a customer of any of these businesses, but I walk downtown daily, and I have never witnessed any ‘scurrying,'” she said. “It is not an illegal substance. What is happening is legal. There is nothing that I have seen that would be too heinous for my 12-year-old-daughter to observe if we walked downtown.
“I don’t have a lot of passion either way, but what I do have passion about is that the city makes this decision based on the right reasons,” she continued. “If we are solving a problem that needs to be solved, that is one thing. But if we are chasing down personal feelings about whether marijuana should be legal or not, it is too late. So, I think we should support our local business and I think you should look at it that way.”
Jane said he thought the board would need to have additional information to feel more confident in whatever decision was made and suggested they table the issue for further discussion.
Priebe told the board she would reach out to other businesses to get additional information on curbside sales percentages, and to other communities to get more information on how they are handling curbside service, and bring that information back to the commission at the February meeting.