GARDINER — Municipal officials in Gardiner have called a temporary halt to accepting business license applications from cannabis-related businesses wanting to open stores in the southern Kennebec County city.

The unanimous vote came Wednesday night, about 2 1/2 months after residents and community organizations began airing concerns about the number of applications being submitted for marijuana-related retail businesses in downtown Gardiner.

The moratorium is effective as of Sept. 2, and it does not affect any business that had already submitted paperwork to the city for consideration, including two whose business licenses the City Council approved Wednesday.

At-Large-Councilor Jon Ault during a Gardiner City Council goal-setting session Feb. 1 at the Gardiner Public Library. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file Buy this Photo

“For me, the feedback that we got from the community was really significant and to me suggested the need to put this back for further review,” said At-large City Councilor Jon Ault. “It’s perfectly OK to admit at the time we did our best but more information is always better, and what we do with it is what matters.”

The moratorium will allow time for the Gardiner Planning Board and Ordinance Review Committee to take another look at the regulations the City Council approved in March as the city prepared for the opening of the state’s adult-use marijuana market in 2020.

At that time, the market launch was expected in spring, but the global coronavirus pandemic and shutdowns of business and government offices delayed that.

Even so, entrepreneurs began submitting applications for business licenses for adult-use and medical marijuana shops in Gardiner over the summer, with many identifying retail spaces in downtown neighborhoods.

While the city’s ordinance requires marijuana retailers to be at least 200 feet apart, downtown Gardiner can still accommodate five shops on and around Water Street, which is experiencing a spike in retail vacancies.

Residents and organizations, such as the Gardiner Thrives coalition, said they are concerned about the normalization of marijuana in the city and its impact on children in the Gardiner area. Many of those children have responded to a survey, administered by the Gardiner-area school district, saying marijuana is already easily accessible in the area. Self-reported marijuana use among students was highest among juniors and seniors at Gardiner Area High School.

When the adult-use marijuana market launched Oct. 9, eight shops were licensed to sell recreational cannabis. But because of a shortage of legally tagged, tested and taxed adult-use pot, only six opened that day, and none in Kennebec County, where only six of the 29 municipalities have opted in under state law to allow a marijuana business to take place.

Fairfield, Gardiner, Hallowell, Manchester and Waterville allow retail, growing, manufacturing and testing facilities for marijuana, while Readfield allows only growing.

Currently, the Wellness Connection operates a medical marijuana dispensary on Maine Avenue in Gardiner. Two other medical marijuana shops had operated on Water Street, but have since closed or moved.

Gardiner Mayor Patricia Hart discusses her agenda for the city in January 2019 at the Gardiner Food Co-op. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal file

At Wednesday’s City Council meeting, Mayor Patricia Hart said she had reviewed the initial slate of recommendations issued by Gardiner’s marijuana task force, which was formed not long after Maine voters narrowly decriminalized adult-use marijuana in November 2016.

Among them, she said, was a recommendation to allow retail sales, but with restrictions.

“I don’t feel like we’re changing the good work of the committee,” Hart said. “I think as Councilor Ault said, we’ve learned and we have more information, and we’ll move forward.”

Because The Healing Community MEDCo LLC at 183 Water St., and Gardiner 4twenty at 243 Water St., had submitted their paperwork before the effective date of the temporary ban, the City Council approved those business licenses for adult-use retail at Wednesday’s meeting, with District 1 City Councilor Terry Berry abstaining from the vote for Gardiner 4twenty, because the property is owned by his limited liability company.

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