Planning Commission to propose zoning changes to address approval of cannabis growing operations

County Times Newspapers

HOLLYWOOD, Md. (March 24, 2022)—The Commissioners of St. Mary's County voted to have the county Planning Commission recommend changes to the county's zoning ordinance to address the approval of cannabis growing operations.

But one commissioner criticized the motion as too little, too late.

Commissioner John O'Connor offered the motion at the beginning of the March 22 business meeting; Commissioner Todd Morgan read it into the record.

"I move to request that the Planning Commission review, hear, consider, draft, and make recommendations to the County Commissioners to approve or disapprove the adoption of an ordinance to amend the text of the comprehensive zoning ordinance regarding Medicinal Cannabis growers, processors, and dispensaries."

In a social media post O'Connor wrote that: "This is not to regulate the industry but to ensure citizens are informed."

Local elected leaders say they have been inundated in recent weeks with citizen calls both in favor of and opposition to an industrial-style medical cannabis growing project on 26 acres in Avenue in the Critical Area, which is usually strictly restricted from development in an effort to protect the watershed.

In a later interview, Commissioner Eric Colvin said all levels of county government were responsible for not preparing the county to deal with medical marijuana projects so they would be subject to broader public scrutiny.

"The failure was lack of foresight," Colvin said. "That can be put on land use staff, the county commissioners and on the county administrator."

"The lack of foresight was not updating our zoning." Colvin said former county administrator, Dr. Rebecca Birdget, bore some responsibility.

Colvin referred to a planning department decision to categorize the project as horticultural rather than agricultural industrial minor as the choice Department of Land Use and Growth Management Director Bill believed best fit with the criteria, but Colvin was still troubled by the memo detailing that decision.

"The memo concerns me because it identifies the weaknesses in our zoning ordinance that leaves vagueness out there to let county staff make unilateral decisions."

Kate Charbonneau, director of the Critical Area Commission, has informed The County Times that the project is governed by a completely different set of rules because the state's Department of Agriculture has deemed it agricultural in nature.

Hunt's decision labeling the project as horticultural under the county's zoning ordinance and not an agricultural industry operation meant it would not be subject to review by the county's Planning Commission.

A county government memo written in October of last year showed that Hunt could have chosen to label the operation under the agricultural industrial minor classification, which would have allowed it to proceed but with a site plan that would have to be reviewed by the planning commission.

This means the plan would have been subject to a public hearing as well.

Commissioner Mike Hewitt said trying to come up with a zoning text amendment, especially since this was likely to be the only such operation licensed by the state for the near future, was akin to political theater.

"This commissioner does not have a problem with medical marijuana and coming up with a great idea to make millions of dollars," Hewitt said. "When this use was proposed in 2018, that was the time we should have looked into where this kind of use should be."

Hewitt, who has been the county's liaison to the Critical Area Commission for the past seven years, said the only county that allows such an operation in its rural preservation area is Cecil County.

"It's just three acres planted in the ground," Hewitt said.

That is a little more than 130,000 square feet of growing space; the Avenue-based operation could reach a little more than 100,000 square feet, according to county planning documents.

"This is all a show," Hewitt chided. "Other counties in the state have regulated where they go, before they are permitted to start.

"St. Mary's County didn't do that." Colvin said the county was currently reviewing its Comprehensive Plan, which is the driving document that guided growth as an opportunity to identify and change weaknesses in the zoning ordinance.

"This highlights how incredibly important the Comprehensive Plan is," Colvin said, adding the county was soliciting public comment. "Please be involved in the process.


Avenue cannabis operation draws fire 4 years into the project, March 17, 2022

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