By Bob Uphues
Brushing aside calls for a village-wide referendum next spring, extending buffer zones and opting out altogether, Riverside village trustees voted 4 to 2 to adopt an ordinance that would allow the sale of recreation cannabis to those 21 and over along the commercial district on Harlem Avenue.
Trustees Cristin Evans, Alex Gallegos, Edward Hannon and Doug Pollock cast the votes in favor of allowing the village to allow retail cannabis dispensaries as a permitted use in the commercial district, while Wendell Jisa and Elizabeth Peters voted against the law after failing to get the vote delayed or amended to make it more restrictive.
Citing the comments of nearly 20 residents, almost all of whom expressed strong opposition to the law, as well as a preponderance of emails she'd received regarding the subject, Peters called the vote to allow cannabis dispensaries "premature and a dereliction of our duties" as trustees.
"We have an obligation to provide adequate time for the community to respond, if necessary by referendum," Peters said, echoing resident statements that they knew about the issue only for a matter of days.
"We also have an obligation to listen to the concerns of our citizens and to try to address those concerns before we move ahead, regardless of the incremental financial gains that may be acquired from immediate action," Peters added.
Peters and Jisa called for trustees to delay a vote on the ordinance until late November to allow for a town hall on the subject. Peters, in particular, said she wanted to delay action to see what the impact of legalizing cannabis sales has on other communities which allow it.
"I'm not willing to be the test case," Peters said.
But Village President Ben Sells and other trustees rejected the notion that the village's debate over whether to allow sales of recreational cannabis and, if so, how to regulate it was being kept under wraps.
Retail sale of recreational cannabis was a discussion item on village board agendas in July and August, which resulted in front-page local newspaper articles both times. The issue was also discussed by the village's preservation and economic development commissions before being the subject of a public hearing before the Planning and Zoning Commission in late August.
The village board meeting on Sept. 5 represented the sixth public meeting where recreational cannabis welcomed resident input. With respect to delaying a vote until November, Sell said he doubted such a delay would change any minds.
"It's quite clear to me that what we are experiencing is a very heartfelt objection by a substantial minority of our residents against the idea of cannabis," Sells said. "It's hard for me to imagine a scenario where if we wait for months on this that we are going to hear anything differently than what we've heard the last two months."
The most vociferous opponents of allowing the sale of recreational cannabis were residents of Byrd and Berkeley roads in the northeast corner of the village, who are convinced that village officials want to allow a dispensary to open at the vacant commercial building at 2704 Harlem Ave.
Residents who also voiced the same concerns before the Planning and Zoning Commission last month, reiterated their fears that a dispensary would endanger their children, both through the existence of such a business itself and its clientele but also the additional traffic such a retail business would bring to an area that already sees cut-through traffic by motorists wishing to outflank traffic backups on Harlem Avenue.
"This is a decision that is going to impact the community across the board," said Byrd Road resident Erika Harford, who would return to the podium several times during the meeting to voice her opposition. "I do believe it is opening a Pandora's Box of issues that have not been adequately considered, and that is going to tarnish the legacy of the board members who are sitting in front of us here tonight."
A majority of the trustees, however, disagreed that a cannabis dispensary, whose operations are strictly regulated by state law with regard to security, lighting, store layout, signage and advertising, would pose a danger to children or the residential neighborhoods abutting the Harlem Avenue corridor.
Trustee Hannon joined Jisa and Peters in agreeing on an amendment that would have created a 1,000-foot buffer from schools for dispensaries. That restriction would have prevented such a business at 2704 Harlem Ave., but Sells broke that tie by voting against such an amendment.
"All the fear I hear, I feel it when I sit and I listen and I watch the faces of the people who I know are speaking from the heart," Sells said. "Yes, I hear you. But I don't agree with you."
Sell said there was no evidence dispensaries increased crime and added that signage rules were so restrictive that no child would know what the business was selling if they walked by.
"I read all of these horrible things that are going to happen, without a shred of evidence," Sells said. "If you want to say it's against my values, I personally don't want it here, absolutely. But don't try to bootstrap that into some kind of quasi-scientific argument that there's support for, because there isn't."