SKOWHEGAN — A wind-whipped grass fire outside a planned indoor marijuana grow operation on Middle Road ignited a pile of old tires Monday, sending black smoke high into the sky and raising questions about whether such a facility would be allowed in town.

Fire crews from Skowhegan, Norridgewock and Fairfield, along with Maine forest rangers, responded to the fire, reported just after 11 a.m. at the former Fox Den dance hall, which straddles the Skowhegan/Fairfield town line. Crews from Canaan and Clinton also were dispatched to cover local fire stations.

The fire burned just under 2 acres of grass, about 1.5 miles south west of the Sappi North America paper mill.

Peter Picardi, 37, of Skowhegan, said he is interested in starting a grow operation inside the former dance hall, first as a medical marijuana facility and hopefully for recreational cannabis later once state rules for selling pot are adopted.

“It’s not going to be open to the public,” Picardi said from the yard, still smoky from the fire Monday morning. “It’s just going to be a wholesale production facility. We’re going to just grow the cannabis, hopefully, to sell to patients and ultimately, hopefully, if the town allows it, for the recreational program. But as of now, we’re just going to be growing medicinally.”

But according to an ordinance passed by voters at Town Meeting in Skowhegan, any aspect of recreational marijuana sales is banned. It prohibits any retail marijuana cultivation facility, retail marijuana stores, product manufacturing and testing and clubs where marijuana is consumed.

All of that is “expressly prohibited” in Skowhegan, but the ordinance does not prohibit the lawful use of pot as prescribed by Maine law or conduct related to medical marijuana and would not ban “recreational” or adult use.

A medical marijuana facility is allowed, but with restrictions, according to another ordinance. Under the town’s Controlled Substance Facilities Ordinance, a registered facility in Skowhegan can be located only on U.S. Route 201, U.S. Route 2 east of the downtown area and at the Northgate or Southgate industrial parks.

Skowhegan Town Manager Christine Almand said Picardi’s proposed facility may be allowed in Skowhegan under state law as a caretaker, or caregiver facility, not a dispensary, where anyone can walk in and make a purchase with a medical marijuana card. The caregiver network covers those certified by the state to grow and sell medical marijuana to qualifying patients.

“It depends on what sort of facility you’re talking about,” Almand said. “If he’s doing as a caretaker facility there’s state laws for that and he has to go through the state for that. Caretaker facilities are different than dispensaries. State law regulates caretaker facilities and municipalities are not able to further regulate caretaker facilities.”

Picardi said Skowhegan town officials are aware of his plan and he said the police chief and the fire chief have come out to have a look at the place.

Picardi said it appears that the fire Monday morning started when a friend was attending to a fire pit, where debris from renovations was being burned, and it got away from him.

“This is the first fire we’ve had — we got this building and it hasn’t been used in decades,” he said. “We’re just trying to get it up to code right now. We’re not even passing inspection yet. We had brought dumpster trailers out here full of refuse. This is just some of the stuff that was extra and the wind came up — I wasn’t here at the time, that’s what my buddy was telling me.”

Skowhegan Fire Chief Shawn Howard said Picardi and his friend did not have a burn permit and were issued a summons to appear in court for burning outdoors without a permit.

Howard said firefighters got to the burning grass quickly, preventing the spread of flames to nearby woods and open fields.

“During the months of April and May we discourage any burning — we don’t allow permits and open burning before 5 p.m.,” Howard said. “It’s just too dry and there’s limited manpower during the day for all fire departments.”

He said the biggest problem was the old tires catching fire. Howard said he couldn’t imagine how many tires had been piled there.

“Your guess is as good as mine — can you imagine, for as many years as this has been here, hard to say,” he said. “That column of black smoke you could see from about a mile away on the Middle Road.”

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]


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