HALLOWELL — The Marijuana Task Force on Monday unanimously voted to recommend to the City Council a temporary 180-day moratorium on the establishment of recreational marijuana retail stores and social clubs within the city limits, a precautionary step after a citizen referendum that Maine voters approved during the Nov. 8 election.

City Manager Nate Rudy said the moratorium will allow the city to get a better understanding of the effect of the state law, a citizen initiative legalizing the use and possession of recreational marijuana by adults who are at least 21, will be. He said the moratorium will be on the council’s April 10 agenda.

“Then we’ll interpret the community’s goals and values into local zoning and licensing that reflects general support for having the adult-use marijuana industry become part of our business mix,” Rudy said.

In Hallowell, the measure was supported by 873 voters and opposed by 755, with 31 blank ballots.

During Monday’s meeting, Rudy and Task Force Chairwoman Lynn Irish, an at-large councilor, led a discussion about potential ordinance and zoning changes, the effects of the new law on public safety and what the presence of social clubs and retail establishments would mean to the downtown Hallowell landscape.

“Hallowell would be very ripe for retail establishments and social clubs, which would change the character of the town,” said Code Enforcement Officer Doug Ide, who is also a Manchester selectman. He said the city would have to look at zoning and ordinances related to signage and where retail, cultivation and manufacturing establishments might be located.

The new state law will allow the creation of retail marijuana stores and social clubs where the substance could be bought and used on site, among other provisions. Lawmakers are working on creating recreational marijuana rules, and Rudy said the moratorium period would let Hallowell have its own parallel conversation.

“If we have that time, we can develop a very thoughtful approach to this that will be mutually beneficial,” he said. “It will foster the industry in a way that aligns with Hallowell’s values and goals for future economic development.”

The group met for the first time in January after the task force was established by Mayor Mark Walker. Irish, who owns a Water Street business, said then that she didn’t want Hallowell to become “loaded with retail shops and social clubs.”

The city will rely on guidance from the Maine Municipal Association, and Rudy said Hallowell probably will adopt moratorium language similar to what MMA recommends. He said the language is “fairly standard,” but added that the council can state on the record their support for the industry coming to Hallowell.

“I believe the discussion council has can clarify any intent they have to be supportive of the industry coming to Hallowell,” Rudy said. “And by setting timelines for enacting ordinances and changing zoning, the city can send a clear message.”

Ward 3 Councilor Kara Walker, a member of the Protection Committee who attended Monday’s task force meeting, said she doesn’t want the moratorium to send the wrong signal about Hallowell not being welcoming and open to diverse people and cultures, but Rudy said he doesn’t think that’ll happen.

“This moratorium isn’t saying ‘no’ to the marijuana industry,” the city manager said. “It’s saying, ‘Give us time to learn about what we’re saying ‘yes’ to.'”

Rudy said he had anecdotal evidence showing that recreational marijuana establishments can lead to an increase in medical emergencies and police activity, but he’d only be speculating on how the city would deal with the unexpected outcomes or unintended consequences of having those businesses in Hallowell. He said the city will work on mitigating any problems that may arise once rules and regulations are imposed.

“Like any development industry, it’s important for there to be some local control and putting (ordinances or rules) in place keeps people from getting confused about what Hallowell residents do and don’t want to see in key areas of the city,” he said.

There is no confusion about the potential the industry brings to Maine, Rudy said.

“(Recreational marijuana) is a very sophisticated industry, and it stands to create a very large market in Maine,” he said.

Municipalities in central Maine have been debating the merits of moratoriums since the referendum was approved in November. Augusta’s council approved a six-month moratorium in December, while Litchfield adopted a six-month ban in January. A task force was created in Gardiner that must deliver a recommendation to its City Council by May.

The marijuana law voters approved in November included a nine-month delay to allow state lawmakers time to create rules for selling the drug, and Gov. Paul LePage signed into law a three-month extension in late January.

Jason Pafundi — 621-5663

[email protected]

Twitter: @jasonpafundiKJ

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