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As officials wait on state regulations, Harrisburg group helps municipalities zone for medical marijuana

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Local governments likely won't see any greenhouse plans from marijuana growers until at least next year, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't be planting seeds now for possible zoning changes, according to one regional planning organization.

To help Harrisburg-area municipalities prepare for the medical marijuana industry in Pennsylvania, the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission is developing a model ordinance. 

Local officials could use the model ordinance to craft future zoning amendments, including maximum square footage parameters for growers/processors.

“They should be prepared,” said Diane Myers-Krug, Tri-County’s associate director.

But other planners in Central Pennsylvania are not quite ready to roll out zoning templates. They said it makes little sense right now to amend local ordinances since the state Department of Health has only just begun developing regulations for the industry. 

The rulemaking process includes figuring out how a limited number of licenses for growers/processors and dispensaries will be distributed across the state.

Wait and see

Uncertainty about the geographic distribution of licensees and high upfront costs will keep interested parties at bay until well into 2017, real estate professionals have said. And a medical marijuana program could take two years to implement fully, state health officials said.

“Until regulations at the state level are clarified, we believe that it may be premature for us to be advising our municipalities what plans, if any, they need to be making,” said Kurt Leitholf, municipal planning chief for the York County Planning Commission.

The key words might be “if any.”

Regional planners are not expecting any wholesale ordinance changes at the local level because the state statute controls the number of marijuana-related licenses and spells out how far marijuana businesses must be from schools and other public buildings.

More importantly, the law states that medical marijuana growers and processors must be treated like all other industrial uses. The same goes for dispensaries.

“The gray area would come in when municipalities potentially would adopt local regulations that would be more strict than what is in the state statute and could potentially restrict the operations of a grower/processor or dispensary,” said Kirk Stoner, planning director for Cumberland County. That could lead to court challenges, added Stoner.

As they wait on state regulators, however, municipalities could review rules that apply to existing industrial and commercial zones, said James Cowhey, executive director of the Lancaster County Planning Commission. They could evaluate local policies on things such as noise, smell and lighting.

A municipality with multiple districts zoned for industrial uses also could begin talking about where it makes more sense to locate a medical marijuana grower and processor, he said. 

'Time will tell'

Given the limited number of medical marijuana licensees, Stoner and Cowhey said they don’t expect the marijuana industry will have much local impact.

Municipalities should focus on other issues, Stoner said, including stormwater management and other critical infrastructure. Wireless communication facilities would fall in the critical category, along with gas, water and electrical systems.

“There are more issues with those than worrying about a single medical marijuana dispensary,” he said.

However, he acknowledges that medical marijuana comes with an extra dose of public scrutiny and there could be stronger opposition from neighboring property owners and tenants.

“Time will tell as regulations are developed,” Stoner said.

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Jason Scott

Jason Scott

Jason Scott covers state government, real estate and construction, media and marketing, and Dauphin and Cumberland counties. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at jscott@cpbj.com. Follow him on Twitter, @JScottJournal.

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