Droves of residents who live near a proposed medical marijuana dispensary in Northwest Philadelphia packed a heated zoning appeals hearing Tuesday to protest a cannabis-selling company moving into their neighborhood.
Holding signs that read, “Good stuff, bad location” and “This is a land use issue,” the more than 100 residents — including three elected officials — jammed the Zoning Board of Appeals hearing room and overwhelmed the hallways. The show of resistance was aimed at killing one of four medical marijuana companies state officials have approved for Philadelphia.
“It can lead to people who do not need medical marijuana, but use it socially, and there could be crime for those who pick up their medically dispensed marijuana,” said former public school assistant principal Antoinette Styer. Like most of the neighborhood critics who came to the meeting, she sported a “I live in Mt. Airy and I oppose this location” sticker.
In March, the city department of Licenses and Inspection issued a permit for TerraVida Holistic Centers to occupy a former bank building on Stenton Avenue near East Allens Lane. Opponents claim the site is too close to a day care center and a bus stop, which both became sticking points in the meeting.
“I really think the city made a mistake here,” lawyer David Fineman, who is representing the day care, told board members.
Fineman said medical marijuana dispensaries are not to operate within 500 feet of a day care center under city and state law.
At the time that the permit was approved, the 500-foot buffer did not apply to day care centers.
Four months after L&I greenlit TerraVida, Philadelphia City Council added day care centers to the 500-foot restriction list, which also includes playgrounds and public schools.
But there’s one problem, Terra Vida attorney Michael Phillips told the board.
“Zoning is not retroactive,” Phillips said.
That did not convince worried residents, though. Just ask Mt. Airy resident Joanne Ransom, whose daughter attends Kingdom Seeds Child Care, the home day care near the proposed dispensary.
“My blood is boiling,” Ransom said. “My child is not irrelevant. I’m not opposed to medical marijuana. I’m opposed to where you’re putting it.”
Hearing resumes Sept. 19
Other community complaints included that the dispensary developers did not better include neighbors into the planning. Two elected officials told the board Tuesday that this was the case.
“This wouldn’t be a problem if we were engaged properly,” said state Rep. Chris Rabb, who lives near the proposed dispensary. “But we were not.”
Philadelphia City Councilwoman Cherelle Parker said the public meeting the developers held was insufficient.
“Guess where they held it? On the 300 block of Mt. Pleasant, a mile away from where this site is located. So if they intended to communicate with you, to talk about any challenges, they could’ve gotten to you,” Parker said.
Hercules Grigos, another lawyer for TerraVida, admitted that there could have been additional community outreach.
“I’m not going to say that was well done,” Grigos said. “Securing the permit and then responding, maybe that wasn’t the best way to do it, and it became an adversarial relationship upfront.”
Councilwoman Cindy Bass also attended the hearing, but she did not speak. In a statement, Bass said she is also opposed to the dispensary.
Christine Visco, president of TerraVida, said she is confident the dispensary will still be on track to offer medication to patients in 2018, the earliest the medical marijuana dispensing can start.
“They’re protecting themselves, and they have concerns. And they have every right to have concerns,” Visco said of the residents after the hearing. “We want to be a good neighbor. And maybe this didn’t start off well. But we hope that it will end well.”
If the board sides with the day care and Parker, TerraVida’s license could be in jeopardy. The board could also send the license back to L&I, something deputy city solicitor Leonard Reuter called “utterly pointless,” since city regulators have already approved the site based on city law at the time the permit application was submitted.
Meanwhile, Parker and the day care are plaintiffs in a lawsuit pending in Commonwealth Court against TerraVida and the Pennsylvania Department of Health aiming to challenge the dispensary.
Before that is decided, though, the board will be convening, on Sept. 19, to resume the hearing about Terra Vida’s license. After the hearing, Parker implored the dozens of residents who gathered to also turn out next month.
“This is a wealthy, powerful, politically connected group, and you sitting in these chairs is the only thing we have,” Parker said. “So you be back here.”