Police & Fire

County commissioners support proposal for local control of recreational marijuana establishments

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DOVER-FOXCROFT — In late 2016 Maine residents approved a referendum concerning the possession and use of marijuana by those 21 and older which also allows for the cultivation, manufacture, distribution, testing and sale of marijuana and products subject to state regulation, taxation and local ordinance. Since the vote, town officials across the state and the Maine Municipal Association (MMA) have been examining what the referendum means, how the Maine Legislature is responding and what individual communities can do with local ordinances concerning both retail marijuana establishments and social clubs.

Towns have the ability to opt out of the retail aspect of recreational marijuana — residents can still use recreational and medicinal marijuana within the law — but questions pertaining to unorganized territories remain.

During a Feb. 20 meeting of the Piscataquis County Commissioners, County Manager Tom Lizotte said a legislative sub-committee is looking at the implementation of the referendum language. “That committee is still working out the points here and the interesting thing is the committee forgot to think about what would work in the unorganized territories,” Lizotte said.

Maine County Commissioners Association Executive Director Charles Pray has drafted a proposal regarding local control of marijuana establishments in unorganized territories, and the Piscataquis commissioners passed a motion in support of the document to have the language added to the marijuana law.

Under the proposal “unorganized and deorganized area” would be added to give county commissioners the authority to opt-in or opt-out of recreational marijuana for any townships under their jurisdiction. Lizotte said currently the commissioners vote on liquor licenses for unorganized territory establishments.

Pray’s proposal includes a two-step approval process, starting with the Land Use Planning Commision (LUPC) determining whether the application for a retail marijuana establishment meets all applicable land use/zoning criteria based on location and issues necessary for permits and approvals. The applicant would then notify the county of their intent to file an application for approvals/permits with LUPC. Notice must be provided no more than 30 days prior to filing an application.

The proposal would also add language to clarify that LUPC retains land use planning, zoning, and permitting authority with respect to marijuana establishments within unorganized territory consistent with statutory authority.

“Right now you don’t have any authority at all,” Lizotte said. “At this stage the Maine County Commissioners Association wants to know if you agree with this or not.”

In other business, at their meeting earlier in the month the commissioners discussed a proposal made by Gov. Paul LePage’s administration to hand oversight of the state’s 15 county jails to a new state commission and potentially close five jails — including Piscataquis County’s — while regionalizing the system.

The facilities are presently controlled by Maine’s counties, which pay $62 million of the total cost of $80 million, with the state funding the remainder. The overall jail budget in 2018 for Piscataquis County is $1,528,488.

The plan would create a new Maine Jail Commission with an executive director and seven members appointed by the governor to oversee three regional jail authorities — northern, central and southern regions — controlling five jails each.

Lizotte said a pair of public hearings on the restructuring proposal have both been postponed with no new dates announced.

“The general consensus on this is it’s going nowhere fast,” Lizotte said. He said the recent closure of the correctional facility in Machiasport coupled with 2018 being an election year may contribute to many not wanting to change the jail system at the present time.

Lizotte said he had talked with BPS Roofing & General Contracting of Waterville, which has first refusal through June to construct a jail exercise yard roof.

“He understands and he still remains interested in that,” Lizotte said, as the commissioners decided to wait on possible developments on the state’s jail restructuring proposal before formally signing the bid documents.

BPS Roofing & General Contracting submitted a bid of $89,000, to be paid in three installments at the document signing, the digging of holes and upon completion. Project funding to cover the 70- by 40-foot yard with a roof and 14-foot fence would come from the inmate benefit account.

The commissioners also gave Piscataquis County Economic Development Council (PCEDC) Executive Director Chris Winstead approval to apply for a Qualified Opportunity Zone designation for Piscataquis County.

Winstead said the designation provides for some tax-breaks for businesses who develop in the zones. “What we are going for is countywide,” he said, which should help the region be selected rather than only applying on behalf of a portion of the seven U.S. Census tracts in Piscataquis County.

Per the new tax bill, the governor can set up to 25 percent of qualifying areas in the state as Qualified Opportunity Zones.

“It gives us in some of these communities the ability to help attract some investments,” Winstead said, mentioning the Derby section of Milo and the branding initiative in the Moosehead Lake area as examples.

“From the research I really don’t see any negatives to this,” the PCEDC executive director said.

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