Pot center to appeal township's rejection in court

Tim Ryan, chairman of the Land Development Board, asks a question during a presentation by J. William Thomas.
Tim Ryan, chairman of the Land Development Board, asks a question during a presentation by J. William Thomas. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 06, 2012

A Westampton Township board had voted, 5-2, against a proposal to open a medical marijuana operation inside a vacant former factory after an emotionally charged evening hearing that ran nearly into Thursday.

Surrounded by his lawyers, planners, and medical experts, William J. Thomas, the chief executive of Compassionate Care Foundation, packed up his papers.

"Oh, yeah," he said when asked if the nonprofit would appeal to Superior Court.

The town's Land Development Board "decided not to follow the law but to follow emotion," Thomas said, referring to hours of comment from residents who mostly opposed the plan. "It's politics. It's NIMBY," slang for "Not in My Back Yard."

Most of the residents who spoke live in Fernbrooke, a 100-home, age-restricted community down the road from the proposed cannabis farm and marijuana dispensary. The factory on Hancock Lane is in a business and light industrial zone next to a recycling plant. It backs up to the New Jersey Turnpike and a Cracker Barrel restaurant on Route 541.

Compassionate Care "can certainly find other locations . . . out in the wilderness, or out in no-man's-land," said resident Janet Curran, stirring applause.

"We have junkies already in the area . . . from the bars and hotels," said Stanley Tanil. "This will be a magnet for them."

"We don't need this in our complex. We're old," Barbara Christenson said.

Several other communities in New Jersey also have nixed proposals for the novel businesses amid noisy public meetings. The Westampton residents at Wednesday's hearing were somewhat divided.

"It's the triumph of ignorance and fear," said Vince Cassidy, a Fernbrooke resident and former hospice volunteer, as he gathered his coat. "Sick people will benefit from this" proposal.

Deputy Mayor Robert Maybury, who sat in the audience, tried to explain the conflicting feelings that tug on officials.

Compassionate Care has "a very good argument," he said. "But I probably would have voted against it because of public opinion. There's no precedent for it, too many unknowns about property values and all. . . . And being first is difficult."

After the meeting, Mayor Sidney Camp said: "Our residents spoke out, and the board heard what the residents had to say. I'm a firm believer there's a need for this, but there is a time and place." Camp did not have a vote on the issue.

Several weeks ago, Camp, board president Tim Ryan, and the zoning officer, M. Gene Blair Jr., had told Thomas that he would not need a variance to open because the zoning laws allow agriculture, industrial, business, pharmacy, and other uses at the site.

But Board Solicitor Michael Coluzzi said the township's 1998 zoning law did not anticipate that the land could be used to harvest and sell pot. "There's no precedent for it," he said.

Ryan and board member William Freeman cast the only yes votes.

Compassionate Care "made its case" but is "fighting a statewide trend" in which boards acquiesce to residents and reject proposals for marijuana operations, Ryan said.

In October, the Maple Shade Zoning Board denied a variance for a marijuana operation proposed by another nonprofit, Compassionate Sciences Inc., which wanted to locate in a former furniture store on Route 73. Officials said the use was novel and not contemplated in the zoning laws.

Upper Freehold in central New Jersey recently adopted an ordinance saying it would not allow any operation that violates federal law. The federal government views marijuana operations as illegal but has issued directives saying it will not prosecute if they abide by state regulations.

In early 2010, New Jersey became the 14th state to allow pot farms and marijuana dispensaries for people with specified illnesses.

But not until March of last year were six nonprofits given preliminary approval by the state to begin setting up operations. So far, only one has won local approvals, in Montclair, Essex County.

Thomas said medical marijuana, which can be inhaled or taken in the form of a lozenge or lotion, is for people "who are dying" and have not responded to other medicines. He said he believes the courts will overturn the board's denial, but it could take time. In the meantime, he is looking for a location that will allow him to open immediately.

Next month, he plans to appear at a zoning meeting in Camden, where the owner of a building next to the former Sears store is seeking a variance that would allow him to lease space to Compassionate Care.

"We have sick people calling and wondering when we're going to open," Thomas said. "They can't wait any longer."

Contact staff writer Jan Hefler at 856-779-3224, jhefler@phillynews.com, or @JanHefler on Twitter. Read her blog at www.philly.com/BurlcoBuzz.

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