HT Planning Board calls opt-out cannabis ordinance inconsistent with right to farm ordinance

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The Hopewell Township Planning Board found the cannabis opt-out ordinance inconsistent with the Hopewell Township Master Plan on June 24, forcing the Township Committee to delay public hearings on the opt-out ordinance to the July 14 meeting.

As previously reported, the opt-out ordinance proposed by the Township Committee does not allow any of the six licenses to set up in Hopewell Township for now. The ordinance was described by Committee member Michael Ruger as “a pause button” while waiting for the State to develop regulations of the cannabis industry. If the Township fails to make a decision about cannabis within its boundaries by August 21, it will be forced into opting into all of the licenses for five years. To avoid that, the Township can either “opt out” of allowing any license at all, or develop ordinances to allow any or all of the license when and where they deem fit. Opting out will not prohibit Hopewell Township residents from buying cannabis elsewhere and using it at home.

The Planning Board heard from Township planner Frank Banisch, who explained that he thought this would be a straightforward assessment. “In this particular instance, it could not be inconsistent because the Master Plan has never said anything to do with cannabis or anything like it…I mean, it’s not like there’s a policy on it,” Banisch said.

Concerns brought up by Board Chair Karen Murphy about the right to farm lead to a heated, hour-long debate among Planning Board members, with the complications arising from Hopewell’s long agricultural history.The all-out ban would include the cultivation license, restricting farmers from growing cannabis if they wanted to.

Francis Linus, the Planning Board attorney, explained that it would depend on whether or not cannabis is considered a crop. “If this ordinance goes through, it repeals that section of the farm or right to farm ordinance, which would allow growing crops if [cannabis] was considered a crop, but I think it’s considered a controlled, dangerous substance,” Linus said.

Board member Venessa Sandom explained that bypassing this ordinance would go against the right to farm ordinance. “I think our Master Plan talks about the fact that we’re an agricultural municipality… and very frankly, I believe that this is a crop, and I think that our farmers should be permitted to grow a crop, whether that’s a tomato, or legume, or hemp, or marijuana,” she said.

Kristin McLaughlin, who is both a Committee member and Planning Board member, explained that the Committee’s concern was the time frame posed by the State legislature.“I think the action the Township Committee took…was never intended to be, as the Governor likes to say, full stop, but a pause button. Simply because there were issues that were not yet fully sketched out for us,” she said.

Murphy explained that the wording of the opt-out ordinance is contrary to the Master Plan in preserving the right to farm. “I hate to throw a wrench into what you’re doing because your reasoning makes complete sense. But…our role, unfortunately, is to review this against the Master Plan,” she said. She explained that Hopewell is a farming area. “If this ordinance came to us… and growing was not one of the prohibited activities, and I think I could be on board with saying that it’s consistent, it’s not inconsistent. But prohibiting growing…troubles me, even more, is that it contains something that would invalidate the right to farm ordinance.”

Further complications arose when the Board noted the difference between open-field farming and greenhouse farming. Banisch pointed out that these wouldn’t be open field farming but instead would be large greenhouses. “There won’t be any John Hart tractor going down the road to his marijuana field,” Banisch said. “This is going to be another situation a lot like what happened with Garden State growers up here inFranklin Township, where they basically covered the landscape with impervious surfaces between the driveways and the greenhouses.”

Sandom quickly rebutted that ideal, stating that the right to farm ordinance does not specify how farmers should conduct their business. “We don’t say farming without greenhouses. We don’t say farming that looks like this. We say agriculture, and we have people who grow hemp in town. I don’t see greenhouses. The question is, are we a town that believes in agriculture and supports agriculture? And is this a crop? And the answer is yes to both,” she declared.

The Planning Board made a compromise to call the ordinance inconsistent with the Master Plan but encouraged the Township Committee to continue with the vote due to the time constraints. However, they will need a study on how cannabis can be grown safely in Hopewell Township in accordance with the right to farm ordinance.

At the next Committee meeting on Monday, June 29, the Committee heard what the Planning Board decided. After some discussion, Mayor Julie Blake explained that the public hearing of the ordinance would be moved to the next meeting to have an open public forum to discuss the future of cannabis in Hopewell.

“I hope that we do have a viable and important ordinance [on the option of] cultivation that considers all of the values that Hopewell township has,” Blake said. However, she urged the Committee to act quickly as their deadline approaches. “There’s not a lot of track left in this race, and…we can do this in a timely fashion, but not at the expense of public input.”

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