Hopewell Borough special meeting gets heated over retail cannabis app

57 Hamilton Ave.

The Hopewell Borough Council held a Special Meeting on January 12 to review the recommendations for the Borough’s only Class 5 retail cannabis license. Mayor Paul Anzano and Councilmember Ryan Kennedy recused themselves because of respective conflicts of interest and were not present at the meeting.

Borough Administrator Michele Hovan noted that the Council had created detailed expectations and requirements for applicants that were published on October 27 publicly, with a due date for applications on December 15 at 11am She said the applications were and reviewed and  the applications scored based on the published criteria

Lisa Maddox, Borough attorney, said the process required “tight solicitation” and “unfettered discretion” as the goal was to “create a process that is tight,” continuing:” “this is competitive.” She said that the application listed 15 items to be submitted, and if not all were submitted on the day of receipt, the application would be deemed incomplete.

“One application was four minutes late,” noted Maddox. “Case law says: the time is the time. If you miss it, you’re not considered,” adding, “every potential applicant must follow the same rules. When a bid or public application is deemed incomplete, that is it.”

Maddox said that two of the three applications were received well ahead of time, but not only was one application late, the same applicant did not submit the fee due until the following day. She said that, in her opinion, the applicant “failed both tests” and that the Council should only review the two applications that were submitted by the deadline.

In response, Heather Kumer of Sourland Provisions exclaimed, “They are talking about our bid! That’s unfair! It’s unfair!”

Sky Morehouse, Council President, said the two complete applicants were New Jersey Pure and Evolve Sky.

Kumer paced the floor of the meeting room before tapping Maddox to get her attention.

Council member Krista Weaver addressed Kumar, reminding her that there would be a time for public comment later.

Kumer and several people in her party left the meeting to speak outside the opened doors where lots of murmuring and a few expletives were audible into the meeting.

The Council continued their discussion about the applicants. Based on the point system established by the Council, Evolve Sky received 120 points and New Jersey Pure received 105 points. Maddox said that the Council could accept the point totals or consider adjustments. New Jersey Pure’s proposed store would be in Hopewell Village Square and Evolve Sky’s proposed location would be at 57 Hamilton Avenue with the storefront facing Somerset Avenue.

“How is 57? I know it is on our redevelopment list,” asked Council member Debra Stuhler.

“That component will be addressed later through the Planning Board. If I was judging, I would consider it utilizing an underutilized space,” answered Morehouse.

Council members Samara MacAuliffe and Weaver thanked Hovan and Maddox for putting the application process together in such a clear way. Council member David Mackie said the Council was fortunate to have two good applications and an objective basis for making a choice. He said that it was good that they had a systematic way of choosing, because both applicants were such strong candidates.

Morehouse said that regardless of the commodity, it was nice to welcome a well-organized, hard-working, and community-involved business. “I’m in a position now, if Council agrees, to make a resolution for local support for a retail license,” said Morehouse. Mackie agreed and said that he recommended Evolve Sky as the candidate.

Joshua Rosenstock, of Sourland Provisions and Kumer’s husband, walked to the microphone.

“We are not taking public comment before the vote,” said Morehouse.

“We don’t accept the vote! We don’t understand why, we are at a loss,” said Rosenstock.

Morehouse asked if it was possible to move public comment before the vote, since it can come before or after. Maddox informed him that he could if he made a motion to amend the agenda. A motion to amend the agenda to have public comment before the vote was approved.

A representative for Sourland Provisions approached the microphone and said, “Proposing our application was received on December 15th. We are 100% certain that no one from Sourland Provisions was in this building on the 16th. Everything was submitted. Reconsider how the application was deemed incomplete.”

Rosenstock then said that he completely agreed, and that he had brought the applications and the checks to Borough Hall.

Morehouse asked whether the applications were submitted in sealed envelopes.

Maddox said that none of the applications were sealed. She said that she was present on December 15 to take control of the applications and that the third application arrived at 11:04am when it was put into the box with the other applications. She said there were no checks in the third applicant’s application; only photocopies of checks. Maddox said that she was informed by the Deputy Clerk that, the next day [December 16], the applicant showed up to deliver checks.

“No one else had the ability to open and look at them. The Deputy Clerk did not say she found checks, but that they were delivered,” said Maddox.

The representative from Sourland Provisions asked if there were cameras in the Borough Hall.

Maddox said that there were no cameras, but a Deputy Clerk who is sworn to accept documents said that she accepted the checks on December 16.

The representative for Sourland asked, “Isn’t it possible there was a misunderstanding, and the checks were misplaced?”

“Knowing the people involved: no,” replied Mackie.

Mackie told Sourland Provisions: “You were at every meeting. You had time to prepare. Why wait until the eleventh hour? You had more advanced knowledge than any other applicant. I’m very sorry to hear it, but it’s not our problem”.

Rosenstock said that he was in the building by 11am on the day of the deadline, and that it took time for a clerk to notice his presence.

Maddox said that was absolutely not what happened. She said that, when the applicant arrived, he was informed that it was 11:04, but he disputed that it was 11:01. Maddox said there were several witnesses to this interaction.

“I motion to delay this vote,” said Rosenstock.

“You have no authority,” Morehouse responded.

An attorney for Sourland Provisions approached the microphone and asked for something in writing for the basis of excluding her client as an applicant.

“We have no motivation. Like David [Mackie] said, the more the merrier,” replied Morehouse.

Council voted to endorse Evolve Sky LLC for its single cannabis retail license.

Edited 1/25/23 at 2:28pm to repair typo in the last sentence.

Edited 1/27/23 at 10:42am after MercerMe was informed that the person who spoke on behalf of the Borough was not Joanna Slagle, Borough planner, but was Lisa Maddox, Borough attorney.

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