Neighbor appeals Brandon DRB decision on pot dispensary

BRANDON — A neighboring landowner has appealed a recent Brandon Development Review Board decision to permit a medical marijuana dispensary on Lovers Lane.
Joanne Nichols filed an appeal to the Vermont Environmental Court on March 21, citing numerous concerns with the proposed facility, including issues of safety, privacy, odor and air quality, pesticides and fertilizers, and the potential risk of living next to a “high-crime target.”
On March 7, the Brandon DRB issued a decision unanimously approving a change of use application for Alexandra Ford and Rutland County Organics for a building at 84 Lovers Lane. The property, owned by Chuck Mitchell, is in the Rural Development zone and was permitted for light wood manufacturing. The DRB approved a change of use to a licensed medical marijuana dispensary and manufacturing facility.
All appeals of local permitting decisions go before the Vermont Environmental Court. To overturn the DRB’s decision to issue a permit, the appellants must prove that the project would have adverse effects on the building, the character of the area, traffic, local bylaws and ordinances, and impacts under the Act 250 land use law.
The Vermont Medical Marijuana law of 2004 allows for up to four dispensaries statewide to serve almost 500 patients on the state registry. There are currently two dispensaries permitted, one in Burlington and one in Waterbury. There are almost 200 patients on the state registry living in four southern counties of Vermont who are unable to access the more northern dispensaries.
By law, a patient must suffer from a “debilitating medical condition” in order to qualify for the medical marijuana registry. Patients must have the approval of a physician they have been seeing for at least six months, who authorizes the use of medical marijuana for the patient once all other avenues have been exhausted. Patients must be screened by the Department of Public Safety, submit to a background check and agree to no-knock searches by law enforcement before being accepted onto the state registry.
The dispensaries operate under the authority of the state Department of Public Safety. They must operate by appointment only, and only one patient at a time is allowed to be seen. The facility must be equipped with surveillance and alarm equipment.
Some Brandon residents have recently expressed their disapproval with the plan to establish a medical marijuana facility in Brandon, saying it will increase drug use and the crime rate in Brandon. There is no proof that a medical marijuana dispensary has that effect, but opponents also cite the fact that children live in the area around the proposed dispensary site. At the very least, opponents say, the selectboard should have held a public information meeting about the issue before it went to the DRB. The selectboard did not act on the proposal, remanding it to Town Zoning Administrator Tina Wiles and the DRB since there was no town ordinance banning such a facility.
In her appeal, Nichols also noted that there is no letter of support from Police Chief Chris Brickell regarding the dispensary. In fact, Brickell stated at a March 11 selectboard meeting that Ford mischaracterized his support of the project. While he said a February meeting with Ford went well, he did take issue with a line in the minutes from the Feb. 19 DRB hearing, which he did not attend. In the minutes, Ford said, “The chief told her he is comfortable with everything they are proposing.” Brickell said that is inaccurate.
“We talked about security and surveillance and I would say it went well,” Brickell said in a March 11 interview with the Brandon Reporter. “But to say I’m comfortable with everything they’re proposing is inaccurate.”
Brickell said he, too, has been concerned that no public information meeting was held on the issue.
“I have a responsibility as the police chief to look at how this affects my community,” he said. “I do have a problem with this (dispensary) becoming a potential target for criminals. Certainly it’s a legitimate business, but it’s a much broader social issue about what we want to bring into our community.”
Brickell did say that he and Ford came to an understanding of the police department’s role should the dispensary be approved, and there is the possibility of a memorandum of understanding with the Brandon police. That would give Brickell the same authority as the Department of Public Safety, the overseeing body of medical marijuana dispensaries in the state, to perform surprise or “no-knock” searches and spot checks.
According to Nichols’ appeal, she was also unclear about her rights as an abutting landowner when she attended the Feb. 19 public hearing held by the DRB on the dispensary application. While she acknowledged receipt of a letter apprising her of the hearing, Nichols said she was not told of her rights as an abutter.
“The letter did not say I had to attend or be sworn in to testify to appeal any decision made by the DRB,” Nichols wrote, adding that the condition of being sworn in was not made clear at the hearing either.
“I assumed I would be able to ask questions at that meeting,” she wrote. “I did not realize it was a judiciary hearing.” Nichols added that she did not have ample time to prepare for the hearing.
A number of people attending that hearing had the same complaint. According to Wiles, Town Attorney Jim Carroll has told her that everyone who signed in at the public hearing should be included on a list of interested parties. That will give them the right to appeal, but the Environmental Court will ultimately determine party status.
That said, there is still time for other appeals in this case. The 30-day period in which to file an appeal is up April 6.

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