WATERVILLE — The wording of a draft ordinance governing medical marijuana-related operations evoked confusion and heated discussion at a public hearing Monday, as the Planning Board tried to gather input on where the businesses should be allowed and what restrictions there should be.

Some members of the public at Monday’s hearing had issues with a proposed draft ordinance that they said is too restrictive on businesses that are allowed by law. City officials said the proposal was based on the city’s “adult business” ordinance.

The City Council at its Feb. 16 meeting voted 6-0 to adopt a 180-day moratorium on considering applications or permits for medical marijuana-related businesses in the city. Councilors also voted to refer to the Planning Board a request to develop recommendations for places where medical marijuana-related businesses should be and what restrictions should be associated with them.

Monday’s public hearing was the first step in the board’s process to draft recommendations.

City Planner Ann Beverage has propoposed an ordinance draft that includes requirements that medical marijuana-related businesses be at least 250 feet away from a school or place of worship, as well as 250 feet from any residential district. The business must also be at least 1,000 feet from any other medical marijuana-related business. Businesses may not be located with other businesses, they must have no medical marijuana products visible from the exterior of the property and be restricted to operate between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m.

Odors emitted from the business can not have a significant effect on abutting property according to the ordinance draft.

Several members of the public, as well as Planning Board member and former chairman David Geller, had concerns with the wording of the ordinance and the scrutiny it placed on a sector of commerce that is allowed by law.

“If this was a CVS, a Walgreen’s or a Rite Aid, this would be a no-brainer,” said Bob Vear, a Waterville resident and medical marijuana caregiver. “For me, (medical marijuana-related businesses are) the same.”

Waterville Attorney Charles T. Ferris attended the public hearing on behalf of two clients who are interested in bringing a medical marijuana operation to Waterville. He voiced dissatisfaction that medical marijuana, a legal business, would be excluded from Waterville’s downtown.

“On Main Street in Waterville we allow pharmacies, we allow bars, we allow tobacco shops. But we’re not going to allow marijuana businesses? It doesn’t seem to make any sense from a public policy standpoint,” Ferris said. “We should not as a city try to limit the type of legal businesses in our downtown.”

Ferris also pointed out that the ordinance as drafted would violate state law because it did not exempt medical marijuana caregivers, who are allowed to grow their product and distribute it to select numbers of patients. Many caregivers, Ferris said, are already in the geographic area that the ordinance is aiming to prohibit them from.

“I think what you’re going to end up with is a conflict between state and local law,” he said.

According to the draft ordinance, medical marijuana-related businesses include dispensaries, cultivation operations and storehouses. Only the cultivation of medical marijuana for personal use is exempt from the ordinance.

As the ordinance is written, caregivers who are licensed by the Department of Health and Human Services under the Maine Medical Marijuana Act to grow medical marijuana for up to five patients — six if the caregiver, too, is one — would face civil penalties if they violated its location and operation terms.

“The proposed ordinance as written, if it prohibits caregivers from doing what they are legally authorized to do and subjects them to a civil penalty, … (the ordinance) would violate state law and we would be subjecting the city to a lawsuit, and I don’t think that is a good idea,” Geller said.

Planning Board Chairman Nick Champagne stressed that the drafted ordinance was merely a starting point for discussion and that it would be changed as the board continued to explore medical marijuana-related facilities and the state laws governing them. Champagne said that he wants to talk to a variety of people on the topic, including law enforcement and medical marijuana experts, before the board considers drafting a final ordinance or presenting the city council with suggestions.

“We have a lot of factors to consider,” Champagne said.

Beverage drafted the ordinance using definitions presented in the City Council’s moratorium and worked in ideas that she had taken from correspondence with Waterville Police Chief Joseph Massey and Councilwoman Dana Bushee. The location restrictions in the drafted ordinance were taken from the city’s ordinance on adult businesses, Beverage said.

Massey addressed the board before the floor was opened to the public at Monday’s meeting. He said that while he did not back the ordinance as it was written word for word, he did believe regulations should be established for medical marijuana-related businesses.

“I think it’s reasonable that the city would come up with regulations or ordinances,” Massey said.

The 180-day moratorium will give the board time to research locations for medical marijuana-related businesses as well as any restrictions that should be placed on them.

Waterville City Manager Michael Roy previously told the Morning Sentinel that the city hasn’t recently been approached by anyone interested in establishing a medical marijuana-related business in the city, but that city officials want to be prepared for that scenario if it occurs.

Geller put forth a motion at Monday’s meeting to not enact any ordinance that failed 1-6. The board voted to table further discussion until its March 21 meeting to give board members more time to review the topic.

This story has been corrected to reflect the amount of patients a medical marijuana caregiver is allowed.

Lauren Abbate — 861-9252

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Twitter: @Lauren_M_Abbate