How welcoming should Riverside be to businesses selling recreational cannabis once that becomes legal on Jan. 1, 2020? The full spectrum of responses was on display during the Riverside Village Board’s first whack at the issue at their meeting on July 18.

What was lacking, perhaps surprisingly given the vociferous response to the suggestion of allowing video gambling, was any public input on the subject of cannabis at last week’s meeting.

Trustees are hopeful they will get some picture of the public’s receptiveness to businesses dispensing cannabis by the time they talk about the subject again at their next meeting on Aug. 1.

“I think hearing from residents at that August meeting will be critical,” said Trustee Edward Hannon, who supported allowing cannabis-related businesses in Riverside as a means of controlling how they operate as well as the potential for revenue.

Village President Ben Sells said that he hoped that now that the village board has begun publicly discussing the issue, it will generate talk among residents. Feedback so far has been scarce.

“To be honest, we haven’t heard a lot from the residents,” said Sells. “It hasn’t been like the volume we got with regard to gambling, so hopefully this will spark a broader discussion.”

If trustees agree they need to get regulations in place prior to January, the process would begin in earnest in late August. The matter would be sent to the Riverside Planning and Zoning Commission, which would conduct a public hearing and hammer out the zoning rules related to regulating the sale of cannabis – where it would be allowed and whether it would require a special-use permit, among other things.

At least one trustee, Elizabeth Peters, came out firmly against allowing the sale of cannabis in Riverside, because she thinks it runs counter to the brand the village has tried to create through its marketing efforts in the past couple of years.

Peters, who chaired the village’s Economic Development Commission prior to her election in 2017, said the commission worked hard to determine what the village’s values were.

“What they’ve come up with is this village is a destination for people to come and shop and walk our streets,” Peters said. “That involves staying in the village and creating an environment, in my mind, that doesn’t jive with this.”

Peters insisted that the matter be considered by the Economic Development Commission, as video gambling was. That commission won’t meet until September unless a special meeting is convened.

Trustee Wendell Jisa also said he didn’t want to see recreational cannabis sales in Riverside, pointing out his experience seeing such businesses in Colorado, but said he might be swayed by the economic impact such a business could bring as well as the village’s ability to impose further local safeguards.

Three other trustees, including Hannon, Cristin Evans and Doug Pollock voiced interest in exploring recreational cannabis sales in the village.

Evans enumerated the raft of state regulations that come with operating a cannabis dispensary and said the board “should explore leveraging this new industry in a way that’s palatable to the community.”

“It’s very highly regulated,” Evans said. “I would like the board, staff and commissions to engage in a thoughtful process with community buy-in.”

Hannon said that he supported allowing the businesses to open in Riverside, because there’s certain to be one somewhere close to the village’s borders outside of the village’s reach to regulate.

The impact of such a business in such close proximity to Riverside would have a similar effect on the village if the business was located in Riverside itself, he said. The difference would be the village’s ability to respond directly to any complaints.

“I’d rather have it in Riverside where you could do [enforcement] on your own volition, as opposed to … having to involve another village, another police department,” Hannon said.

Pollock said that if the village wanted to allow cannabis businesses in Riverside, it should start the ball rolling quickly on setting local rules and cautioned against making rules too cumbersome to navigate.

Adding hurdles such as special-use permits might discourage businesses that might be welcomed with open arms just across the street.

“The businesses are not going to want to go to a place where they have to go through a long zoning process, because there is going to be an opportunity for them to go to places where they’re going to be welcomed and maybe even incentivized,” Pollock said. “If we don’t want to be aggressive about getting it, we might as well opt out.”

Sells said the village has already been approached by three separate parties expressing interest in opening a dispensary in Riverside.

As for the economic impact, while it’s somewhat unclear, Sells indicated that if the village imposed the maximum local tax allowed on such a business, it could net as much as $300,000 to $500,000 a year, if industry representatives he’s talked to are to be believed. 

“The revenue is a game-changer,” Pollock said.

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