Avenue cannabis operation draws fire 4 years into the project

County Times Newspapers

HOLLYWOOD, Md. (March 17, 2022)—An industrial-sized medical marijuana growing operation in Avenue now under construction has been known to county officials, as well as planning, public works, and health department staff for the past four years but only now is the public awakening to the fact.

Documents obtained by The County Times regarding the facility being constructed on Abell Road show that officials have labeled it a horticultural operation, and, thus, under the zoning ordinance was not subject to go before the county planning commission, board of appeals or any kind of public hearing.

Commissioner Mike Hewitt railed against the project during the regular business meeting of the Commissioners of St. Mary's County this week.

He said he had only been informed of its existence in recent days by nearby residents who are concerned about the project's progress.

"I was appalled at what's being built in the critical area," Hewitt said. "There are challenges getting approvals for decks…different small things like that.

"There are challenges getting approvals by the Critical Area Commission."

The Critical Area Commission, documents show, has been aware of the project for years; the commission strictly regulates growth of any kind on land that is within 1,000 feet of the watershed.

Hewitt noted the stark contrast between the trials of most property owners trying to make small changes in critical area land they own and the scale of the project now under scrutiny.

The facility is located in what is known as the resource conservation area (RCA) portion of the critical area, which is the most restrictive when it comes to allowing development.

The building currently under construction is 52,850 square feet in size, Hewitt said on Tuesday, on approximately 26 acres of rural land. "They have a 119-space parking lot for what they claim to be just 20 employees," Hewitt said. "This just does not make sense."

Hewitt questioned how such a project, whose plans include, another large climate controlled growing house as well as administrative offices, could not be placed under more public scrutiny before now.

The site in currently encircled by a chain link fence.

"How in the world does something like that get approval, to get a permit, without a public hearing; no input from the residents," Hewitt said. "It's just a monstrosity sitting there."

The answer may lie in an official document dated Oct. 1 of last year, that, according to Bill Hunt, planning and zoning director, is a history of the decision regarding the approval of the site.

The document was part of an email transmission to Commissioner John O'Connor sent Feb. 17 that O'Connor in turn sent to The County Times on Feb. 24, shortly after community members concerned over the project had informed journalists of its existence.

"There are two potential use categories in the Zoning Ordinance for growing and processing cannabis. These are use type 2. Agricultural Industry, Minor, which is described as the 'Processing, drying or storage of crop and animal products, including minor dairy processing facilities and small-scale grain mills.' The other use is use type 5. Crop Production and Horticulture, which is: 'Agricultural activity primarily engaged in raising and harvesting of orchard crops, row crops, or field crops on an agricultural or commercial basis, including primary processing and packaging, but excluding canning and secondary food production. Includes horticultural operations engaged in cultivation of flowers, fruits, vegetables, or ornamental trees and shrubs on a wholesale basis with incidental retail sales,'" the memo, which is not on county letter head, nor is it signed, stated.

"Growing and processing cannabis could have been assigned to either use; or if the Department had thought cannabis growing did not fit in either, a new use would have had to have been added to the Zoning Ordinance," the memo continued. "The department made the decision that the growing and processing of legalized cannabis should be classified under the Crop Production and Horticulture use.

"The major difference between Crop Production and Horticulture and Agricultural Industry, Minor from a zoning approval perspective is that Agricultural Industry, Minor requires site plan approval, but Crop Production and Horticulture does not. Putting the use as Crop Production and Horticulture meant that a cannabis project would not be reviewed and approved through a public hearing. Neighboring property owners would not be notified of a pending application for the use."

That memo went on to postulate that even if the project went before the county's planning commission, the membership there would have likely approved the plan.

"The Planning Commission would have had to apply the criteria in the Zoning Ordinance, and, using these criteria, there would not have been a reason for the Planning Commission to deny the concept site plan," the memo reads.

The planning commission has, in fact, rejected concept site plans in the past even though planning staff have reported those plans met all of the zoning ordinance criteria.

Charlie Mattingly, the applicant for the project, said he has been sharing his plans with the community from the beginning which was 2018.

"We've been extremely transparent," Mattingly told The County Times. "I shared our exact site plan with neighbors."

"It's come down to a couple of neighbors who are spreading misinformation about the project."

Mattingly said the project includes an additional "50,000 square foot building for a growing house," that is now under construction, while a 2,500 square foot facility already exists for breeding different strains of cannabis.

"There are already 200 to 300 plants there already," Mattingly said.

A 50,000 square-foot greenhouse has been approved for construction, he said, for more growing capacity "if the market needs it."

"Right now it doesn't need it."

A 10-foot berm will be constructed around the fence, he said, to conceal it, while the entire facility will be covered by a ring of cypress trees that will grow to 30 feet "so no one will have to see it."

The multiple air control systems flowing into the facility will also be housed, Mattingly said, to eliminate noise.

The smell of the plants will be suppressed, he said, by the application of a special enzyme in the air of the grow house.

The project would use a maximum of 5,000 to 7,000 gallons per day of water, Mattingly said, in a recirculating hydroponic water system, which would be fed by a single well.

The full buildout of the project could bring in as many as 120 employees, mostly from the surrounding communities, Mattingly said, and would be bused in to avoid traffic problems.

David Weiskopf, interim county administrator, said that the project was proceeding, to his knowledge, "pursuant to all state and local laws."

Weiskopf said the decision made by Hunt to classify the project as horticultural rather than a minor industrial agricultural project was appropriate.

"Mr. Hunt made his decision based on the fact that the state and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have classified it as agriculture," Weiskopf, who up until recently was the head county attorney, said. "I don't think he was wrong in his decision at the time.

"It's a defensible decision."

But, Weiskopf admitted that not all counties acted as did St. Mary's.

"Could a 21st century barn have a bathroom?" Weiskopf said. "I get it; I see both sides of the argument.

"It's not my area of expertise but I can see how some jurisdictions could say this belongs in a commercial district or an industrial district."

Commissioner Todd Morgan said the commissioner board was reviewing the project and the process to get to this point.

"The commissioners are aware of the issues regarding the cannabis facility in the 7th District," Morgan said. "I hosted a meeting between residents, county staff, [the Department of Land Use and Growth Management], St. Mary's County Health Department and Soil Conservation District to discuss the issues.

"The commissioners take seriously residents' concerns and are researching all issues; we are in contact with state agencies, the [Maryland Medical Cannabis] Commission, legal and other parties to determine the appropriate course/courses of action."

For more local stories from the County Times newspapers, visit countytimes.somd.com or find a copy on local news stands.

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