Maine’s First Recreational Marijuana Store Getting Closer … But Could Old Graves Get in the Way?

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The planning board in the city of South Portland has approved a site plan for what would be Maine’s first recreational marijuana store, but the possible presence of historic graves may complicate the process.

Meanwhile, applicant Scott Howard, owner of the aptly named SeaWeed Company, is looking forward not only to selling marijuana but also to possible expanded uses, designing what one planning board member called a nice spot for “a beautiful restaurant.”

The happening and hip artist’s rendering of the rear of the building, showing smiling and moving young people hanging out on a deck and patio that looks in the direction of wetlands to the west, drew rave reviews and droll comments from local officials during the board meeting Wednesday, January 9.

State rules for recreational marijuana stores aren’t set yet. But they are not expected to allow using marijuana on the site of a marijuana store, and a consultant for the applicant told the planning board Wednesday no product will be consumed on site.

Yet the design of the project appears to hint at future expansions, as city planning officials alluded while looking at the artist’s rendering.

“I did notice on the plans that there is a deck and a patio on the back. And they do take area and surface. And since we don’t have social clubs licensed – what are they for?” planning board member Linda Boudreau asked, according to a video of the meeting on the city’s web site.

“Sure. Yeah. So Scott really envisions this store as not just a place to purchase products, but to learn and to gather, and to interact with not only the employees who are going to be experts in their field, but also, you know, other customers,” said civil engineer Mike Tadema-Wielandt, of Terradyn Consultants, of Portland, representing the applicant. “There will be no consumption of marijuana on site, so certainly it’s not intended to be a place where people are going to come and use the product, but more so to create a comfortable area where people can gather and learn, and learn about the product.”

“And again, you know I mentioned the wetlands and the reason we sited the building over there,” the civil engineer continued. “Well, the deck and the patio sort of get people outside even closer to that, and it kind of provides a transition from sort of the wild wetlands to an outdoor space into the store itself.”

“O.K.. O.K.. Certainly has potential for re-use too, if marijuana doesn’t take off, a beautiful restaurant,” Boudreau said, laughing.

Social-consumption marijuana clubs are banned in Maine until 2023. In Massachusetts, though, they might be getting closer. On Wednesday, January 9, the same day the planning board in South Portland met, a panel advised the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission on regulations to allow so-called “pot cafes,” even though a state commission member in October 2018 suggested they might be “years” away.

Later in the South Portland planning board meeting, while looking at a blowup of an artist’s rendering, planning officials let their imaginations fill in some blanks.

“Nobody appears to be smoking, vaping, eating,” city planning and development director Tex Haeuser said, to laughter.

“But it did look quite relaxing and recreational,” planning board member Boudreau said, laughing. “So that’s why I asked the question.”

“I believe that he’s going to have ornithology classes, and, you know, bird watching sessions, you know, people can go out early in the morning and…” city community planner Stephen Puleo said.

“It’s sort of a natural high,” Haeuser said, to laughter.

In November 2016, Maine voters narrowly approved a referendum legalizing recreational marijuana — 50.26 to 49.74 percent, or less than 4,000 votes out of more than 750,000 cast.

Launching recreational marijuana in Maine has been a struggle, largely due to the opposition of then-Governor Paul LePage, a conservative Republican who twice vetoed pro-marijuana bills the state legislature approved. In May 2018 the state legislature overrode LePage’s veto of the second bill, but rules for implementing the new law have not been finalized, so no recreational marijuana stores exist in Maine.

The SeaWeed site is at 185 Running Hill Road, an undeveloped 4.34-acre lot in the western part of South Portland not far from Route Interstate 95. It’s near a Weight Watchers, across from a Target, and not far from The Maine Mall.

The plan calls for a 3,200 square-foot single-story building.

One problem that may hinder project designers is the possible presence of old graves.

Planning Board member Mary DeRose said an 1857 map shows the presence of graves on or near the parcel, across the street from an existing cemetery. She said the graves include that of a Revolutionary War veteran and a smallpox victim from the 1770s.

“It’s on a map. I wrote my PhD. dissertation on the landscape change, and I just happen to know the map. And it has a graveyard designated right there,” DeRose said, noting that one of the people possibly buried there once owned 2,000 acres in the area and was a leading citizen after the American Revolution.

She suggested that the applicant should hire a historical archaeologist to scan the ground. But the civil engineer balked, saying that there is 10 feet of gravel fill on the entirety of the building site put there more than 20 years ago, meaning not only will the foundation of the building not reach any graves that may be on the site, but the graves may be difficult or impossible to find.

“I’m familiar with the types of studies, and usually they involve hand-digging holes,” civil engineer Tadema-Wielandt said. “I’m not sure that’s going to be suitable in this case.”

State law requires probing possible ancient burial sites and moving the bodies if necessary, but the city planning director noted that the unusual nature of the site poses difficulties.

After some discussion, planning board members decided to require the applicant to put up a plaque commemorating the graves at the site and to contact the local historical society and the state’s historic preservation agency for further direction.

Another factor is traffic. A traffic study commissioned by the applicant in July 2018 projected the marijuana store would generate about 45 to 60 vehicle trips during the peak hour in the afternoon

“Who knows? We haven’t had many of these yet,” said Haeuser, with a laugh. “They’re doing the best they can.”

In Massachusetts, the first recreational marijuana stores generated surprising levels of traffic, particularly in the central Massachusetts town of Leicester, where long lines of cars caused problems on its first day of operation November 20. That led the state’s third recreational marijuana store, in Salem, to open on an appointment-only basis on its first days of operation, December 15 and 16.

The planning board hearing Wednesday drew one member of the public, who said he opposes recreational marijuana but acknowledges it will generate money in profits and property taxes, at least in the beginning.

“Well, I hate to admit it, it’s here,” South Portland resident Russell Lunt said. “… I’m not a big fan of this type of business, but I’m realistic.”

“This is going to be very lucrative for them,” he said. “… They want to do it? I disagree, but I mean, that’s the way it is. It’s the times. And I think we just have to embrace the times, I guess.”

South Portland is a city of about 25,000 people on the south side of the Fore River, across from the city of Portland, and with coastline on Casco Bay to the east.

It’s considered one of the most liberal communities in Maine. In a state Hillary Clinton won by less than 3 points over Donald Trump in November 2016, she took South Portland by 40 points – 67 to 27 percent. The marijuana referendum in November 2016 also passed in South Portland, but by a smaller margin – 58 to 42 percent.

Local officials in South Portland expect applications for recreational marijuana stores to pick up as the state gets closer to finalizing rules for allowing them to operate.

“We’ve already talked to probably, how many, 15 or so,” said Puleo, the city’s community planner. “And we haven’t even started really taking pre-application meetings. So I would suspect that, you know, they’re rushing now, and it’s coming fast.”