Marijuana dispensary in danger after appeal, zoning changes

Chase Cook
Contact Reporterccook@capgaznews.com

When Abigail Diehl’s company received approval from the county in February to build a medical marijuana dispensary off Generals Highway, she thought her bureaucratic struggles were over.

But opponents to the project have appealed the county’s approval to the County Board of Appeals and an abrupt change to zoning laws has put the business in doubt.

Diehl said the company, which is female-owned, is struggling to get a foothold in Anne Arundel. Other medical marijuana dispensaries have had difficulty finding suitable locations and weaving through county bureaucracy. Only one dispensary in Linthicum has opened since the state handed out preliminary dispensary licenses in December 2016.

Diehl, director of business development and sales for Kind Therapeutics USA, is responsible for finding a dispensary location for the company. Kind Therapeutics owns a marijuana growing business in Hagerstown and has a license for a dispensary in District 30 in Anne Arundel County.

“We spent about a year and a half looking for a site,” Diehl said. “And now we have no chance without changes to the law.”

At the core of Diehl’s struggle is this: her site requires a variance for approval because it is being built too close to residential property lines. Variances are requests by developers and homeowners to bypass some county rules that they claim are onerous.

The county changed the rules in May and now forbids variances for medical marijuana projects. County Executive Steve Schuh proposed the change after a public dispute and the departure of the former administrative hearings officer Douglas Hollmann, who said Schuh fired him.

Schuh said he disagreed with Hollmann’s interpretation of variance laws but never commented on whether Hollmann was fired or retired.

The County Board of Appeals is set to review the Kind Therapeutics case in a September hearing. The board reviews decisions made by county agencies. In the case of Kind Therapeutics, they are being asked to review the county’s approval to build the dispensary.

Changes to the law in between the initial decision could affect the outcome of the case. Board members won’t be familiar with the previous decision, lawyers so lawyers will have to present the case from the beginning. The law requires Kind Therapeutics USA to request a variance, but county law now says those variances are not allowed.

Schuh’s spokesman Owen McEvoy said the variance legislation was proposed to stop the administrative hearings officer from granting variances, not to jeopardize projects that already had approval.

“We weren’t trying to prevent anyone who was approved for anything,” said Owen McEvoy, Schuh’s spokesman. “This is an unfortunate situation that a company was caught middle.”

Richard Owens, an Annapolis resident, is party to the appeal and owns one of the residential properties that required Kind Therapeutics seek a variance. He did not return request for comment.

County Councilman Jerry Walker, R-Crofton, has introduced legislation that would grandfather in the Kind Therapeutics dispensary and allow a variance for the site.

Walker’s bill will go before the County Council on September 4. The appeal’s hearing for Diehl’s company is set for September 6.

Walker did not immediately return a request for comment.

Medical marijuana struggles

Kind Therapeutics’ attempts to open a medical marijuana dispensary are similar to other dispensary owners’s struggles to open a business in Anne Arundel County. Schuh has publicly opposed dispensaries and wanted to completely shut them out of the county. But dispensaries are licensed by the state and required to build within mandated senatorial districts.

A compromise between Schuh and the County Council led to regulations that supporters argued would place medical marijuana dispensaries away from homes and schools. Those regulations required building 1,000 feet or more away from residential properties and school buildings along with building along major roadways.

But the rules were so strict that several marijuana applicants have said it is almost impossible to find a location that meets every requirement.

Even if a site meets all those requirements, it doesn't mean an owner would agree to sell. The county’s rules were so strict that state lawmakers considered language in state law that would allow dispensary license owners to build in other districts after failing to find suitable property.

The County Council is considering legislation that would loosen some of the restrictions by reducing distance requirements by 250 feet and lowering road access requirements for sites in industrial zones.

But in Diehl’s case those changes wouldn’t help unless the county moves the distance restriction to 500 feet or less.

“It does feel like medical marijuana businesses are being unfairly targeted,” Diehl said. “We are looking for the Council to step in and help us.”

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