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Lower Township opens door to cannabis businesses
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Lower Township opens door to cannabis businesses

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LOWER TOWNSHIP — Township Council on Monday became the first governing body in Cape May County to move to welcome cannabis businesses, introducing an ordinance that would allow two retail sites and delivery services.

A public hearing and final vote are set for 5 p.m. July 6 at Township Hall, 2600 Bayshore Road in the Villas section of the township.

“The bottom line is that cannabis is here and we cannot stop it. It’s the state law,” said Mayor Frank Sippel. He said it only makes sense for the township to get some of the tax revenue.

Last year, voters overwhelmingly said yes to legalizing cannabis, including in Cape May County. In Lower Township, about 70% of voters approved the referendum, according to Sippel.

Still, many towns in the county have already said no to allowing cannabis sales, including Ocean City, Wildwood and Cape May. As Sippel pointed out, the state law signed by Gov. Phil Murphy in February allows towns to opt out of allowing cannabis operations — and the local tax benefit — but they will not be able to stop people from getting deliveries or smoking weed at home.

As introduced, the ordinance would allow two licensed retail establishments, one in the commercial zone in North Cape May, where there are multiple stores, and another in the industrial zone close to the Cape May Airport on Breakwater Road and along Fulling Mill Road nearby.

The airport is home to multiple businesses, including Cape May Brewing Company, but it is unlikely it will be the site of legal cannabis sales.

“I wouldn’t be in favor of that,” said county Commissioner Director Gerald Thornton. “I’m sure the FAA would not want cannabis sales at the airport.”

Sippel said the township ordinance includes strict standards, including keeping cannabis businesses at least 1,000 feet from homes, schools, playgrounds and other uses and limiting the hours from 10 a.m. until 10 p.m.

He said there also would be limits on the signs used on the businesses.

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Under the proposed ordinance, the retail cannabis businesses could also offer delivery.

Lower Township may be the first, but it is unlikely to be the last. Neighboring communities West Cape May and Middle Township also are considering allowing retail cannabis sales.

“We’ve been looking at it with a pretty open mind in terms of the benefit to the community,” said West Cape May Mayor Carol Sabo. On Wednesday, she said the Borough Commission has been working on a draft ordinance that could be introduced soon, adding she has heard a lot of support from the community.

As Sabo put it, she would be short-sighted to pass up the potential revenue in a town that has neither beach tags nor parking meters. Under the state law, towns will be able to charge a 2% tax on local retailers, manufacturers and cultivators, and 1% on wholesale operations.

Because cannabis remains illegal at the federal level, whatever is sold in New Jersey will have to be grown in the state.

Middle Township has already said yes to a cultivation site on Indian Trail Road, where there is now a vacant seafood plant. The Massachusetts-based company Insa has plans to grow and sell cannabis for the medical market but is still awaiting the needed state licenses. Company officials have raised the possibility of growing for the adult-use market there as well but do not plan to offer sales at the location except for those with a medical marijuana card.

Middle Township has so far not said yes or no to allowing retail sales, as Mayor Tim Donohue said at Monday’s Township Committee meeting.

Attorney Sean Mack had raised the issue during the public comment portion of the meeting. He represents Nicole Melchiorre and Tom Nuscis, who want to open a cannabis retail operation in Lower or Middle township.

Mack pushed Middle Township to allow a retail operation, following the lead of Atlantic City and Lower Township.

“We think that’s a better public policy choice for a bunch of reasons,” he said. Towns that say no will miss out on tax revenue, jobs and other benefits, while those that approve the use will be able to decide what zones will support the use.

“Sir, we’re aware of all this. We have studied the issue extensively,” Donohue said at the meeting. “We’re exploring all our options. We have not made a final decision.”

The state law gives towns 180 days from when Murphy signed it to create local zoning laws either keeping out cannabis businesses or deciding where to place them. Otherwise, the default rules will allow operations in commercial and industrial zones.

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