CAMDEN — Following a two-hour public hearing about allowing marijuana retail stores in specific Camden zoning districts, the Select Board voted 4 to 1 March 21 to let the voters decide the outcome at June 2023 Town Meeting.
The agreement concluded much debate, and after many residents expressed their opinions. The Washington Street John French Meeting Room was full of citizens who took to the podium with statements, many of them opposing the idea of siting marijuana shops in Camden, especially in the proposed districts. Some advocated for the proposal and sending the decision to the voters.
In the end, the Select Board agreed that warrant language will be crafted, but voters will see two articles pertaining to the matter when they go to the polls June 13.
As of 2022, Camden voters decided to place all of its municipal business before the electorate on paper ballot, doing away with the traditional in-person, open-floor town meeting. Therefore, there will be no more public discussion about the articles after they appear in their final wording form before the Select Board in April.
At issue was Camden resident Mark Benjamin’s proposal to amend the town’s marijuana regulations in the districts to allow up to two adult use retail or medical caregiver storefronts in the Downtown Business District (B-1), the Transition Harbor Business District (B-TH) and the Transitional Business District (B-3).
See accompanying map for the districts.
Benjamin wrote the amendment language and included stipulations that marijuana retail establishments must be set back a minimum of 500 feet from the boundary line of a lot containing a childcare facility, a daycare center (or nursery school), a public preschool program, a public school, or the Camden Public Library.
If approved, new language would be added to the town’s existing marijuana ordinance, which governs cultivation and processing.
But following a lengthy debate amongst board members about the merits and drawbacks of marijuana retail stores in town, the role of the Select Board in deciding what to put on the ballot before voters, the distinctions between select board and city council forms of government, and the responsibility of voters understanding an issue – and ballot article — before casting a vote, the Camden Select Board ultimately voted to let the voters decide.
They furthermore created another option, and agreed to put two articles on the ballot:
The first would be based on the original ordinance amendment language as proposed by Benjamin, with the 500-foot setback.
The second would drop the 500-foot setback and replace it with a 1,000-foot setback. This would, in effect, said Camden Town Planner Jeremy Martin, restrict any marijuana stores to the Transitional Business District (B-3), which extends along Elm Street (Route 1) south of Camden’s downtown.
This would provide voters three choices, said Select Board member Sophie Romana: Approving, or not, the stores with a 500-foot setback; approving, or not, stores with a 1,000-foot setback; or rejecting the proposal entirely.
“I recognize the complexity and it’s a hard one,” said Select Board member Alison Kellar. But, she said she felt it important to send the issue to the community.
“I am not sending it to the voters because it is a hard issue,” said Romana. “My recommendation to send it to the voters is first, we are all building this community... and owe to all the voters in Camden the chance to express themselves, and say yay or nay. I do think that the wording is fine as it is. Because it is such a hot issue, I think people will do their research and talk to other people.... The bottom line is that to me, as a voter, I would like to able to vote on this issue.”
Select Board member Stephanie French advocated for more consideration of possible amendment language, and wondered what the town could have produced if it had had more time to consider such an ordinance change.
“If we had a longer view on it instead of this six-week push, what could we have come up with that may allow it to come into the town and be a little bit less divisive,” she said.
Board member Tom Hedstrom said, “We do, as a board, and obviously everybody can vote the way they choose, but we as a board choose to restrict other entities from Camden.”
He continued, “we are elected leaders of Camden, so if you feel strongly you want to send this to voters, that’s your choice, but this is not a precedent for us to make our own decision, and to decide what – and back to my original point, what we want Camden to be, the images we want to send, what’s best for our residents, our children, the economy, visitors, etc.”
The creation of the second article, along with finished warrant article language for both articles, is to appear back before the Select Board April 18 – “the last date we get to approve anything that goes on the ballot because of printing,” said Board Chair Bob Falciani.
With the motion to move two marijuana articles to the warrant, the discussion ended. Board member Hedstrom opposed the motion.
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