HOULTON, Maine — Want to sell pot? Houlton wants you.
With a 5-0 vote at their Feb. 21 meeting, town councilors approved moving forward with an ordinance aimed at welcoming entrepreneurs interested in growing and selling marijuana for recreational use.
“This town has been struggling for years,” Councilor Sue Waite-York said. “We’re not in a position to let this opportunity slip by.”
Although the state has put the brakes on all such businesses until February 2018 while it develops its own rules, Houlton wanted to make sure its welcome mat was out for any investors considering a pot-related shop in Houlton.
Houlton has been hashing the issue over since November when a citizen-led effort made recreational marijuana legal in Maine. Locally, the ordinance governing its use would place businesses on the outskirts of town, near the airport in Houlton’s industrial park. The town has yet to pencil in fees for these businesses and the number of marijuana retailers it will allow.
“It’s not a common business,” Waite-York said. “But it’s a good opportunity. I’m a fan.”
So, apparently, were plenty of others. The issue packed council chambers that Tuesday night.
“The gist of it is: big business is coming to town,” said Steven Porter, a resident of Ludlow who spoke during the public comment time and identified himself as a grower. “It’s not a bad, ugly thing. It’s a greenhouse indoors.”
Porter said he and roughly 20 other growers have financial backing and that marijuana represents a big opportunity for Houlton.
“This is millions of dollars we’re talking about,” he said.
But it’s more than money at stake, others say.
“I realize marijuana is here to stay,” Terry Beals, owner of Beals Aircraft Service, said. “But as a business owner, I don’t know why I was never asked ahead of time [about this ordinance]. I think it would be right to approach other businesses in the area.”
Beals said he felt marijuana operations in the airport industrial park could compromise future businesses the town is trying to lure to the site.
“I just think you’re limiting the future of the airport and the future of the industrial park,” he said. “I wish them luck [with these businesses], but I do wish they were somewhere else.”
Priscilla Monroe, a Houlton planning board member, also expressed doubts. She agreed that marijuana could represent a huge revenue stream for the town, but noted that the planning board was opposed to this ordinance as written.
“We request that you do not try to regulate the unknown or undecided,” she said. “We ask that you work with the planning board to develop one we can all be proud of.”
The town’s planning board was not involved in creating the ordinance; Town Attorney Dan Nelson drafted it, using the town’s 2011 medical marijuana ordinance as a guide.
Hillary Lister of Augusta, who works on behalf of medical marijuana growers, praised Houlton’s recreational marijuana ordinance, and she said now is the time to move forward if the town hopes to attract marijuana businesses.
“Investors are making their decisions right now about where they want their businesses located,” she told councilors.
Some of those against the ordinance also questioned if the proximity to the Canadian border would cause problems, but grower Porter dismissed those concerns.
“Maybe it’s good training for those [Border Patrol] dogs,” he said.
In the end, with six councilors present, the ordinance was approved by a 5-0 vote with Council Chair George “Bill” McCluskey abstaining. Town Manager Butch Asselin confirmed later that McCluskey was advised by the town attorney to abstain because McCluskey is a registered medical marijuana caregiver.
In a phone interview after the meeting, Asselin said that bypassing the planning board to develop an ordinance is allowed by charter, but it is by no means typical. He also said he felt this ordinance was “fine as written” and that “not many changes will be needed” in the future.