Portland abandons marijuana matrix, will license all qualified business applicants

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Although one city councilor said they would be wasting “months and months” of work, and another said it would be a “slap in the face” to city staff, the Portland City Council on Monday abandoned the system it had put in place to award retail marijuana business licenses.

Instead, the city will license all qualified applicants.

The council voted 5-3 for the change, with Mayor Kate Snyder and Councilors Nick Mavodones and Tae Chong opposed. Councilor Spencer Thibodeau was not present for the vote.

The decision followed a lawsuit brought against the city by Wellness Connection of Maine, a license applicant who sued on the grounds the matrix, which gave an advantage to Maine residents, was unconstitutional. Wellness Connection also filed a similar lawsuit against the state, which eventually dropped its residency requirement.

Mayor Kate Snyder, upper left, speaks during The Portland City Council’s remote meeting on Oct. 19. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

Associate Corporation Counsel Anne Torregrossa said the “litigation was not going our way” and the city had three options:

• It could award licenses to any applicants who meet the city’s other criteria. “This amendment would essentially award licenses to all qualified applicants in the first round,” she said, estimating that 35 applicants would be approved, rather than the original cap of 20.

• It could create a lottery to award the licenses.

• It could drop the two matrix requirements challenged by Wellness Connection.

Councilors ultimately adopted the first option.

Councilor Justin Costa said the council had expected business licenses would be awarded by this point, since Oct. 9 was the first day retail marijuana businesses could be open in Maine. He said he wanted to keep moving the city forward, although “this is no one’s preferred plan.”

Costa said the third option, removing the residency requirements, was closest to retaining the system the city had worked to create. But he also said it would very likely leave the city open to further litigation.

Chong and Mavodones said they preferred dropping the residency requirements, in light of the effort the council and city staff had put in. Chong said the first two options would be a “slap in the face” to staff who had done the work and research to build the matrix and arrive at a cap of 20 licenses.

“Sometimes when you have too many businesses it hurts the sector itself,” he said.

Mavodones said he was worried the council would “relitigate” itself by returning to past arguments and discussions it had already had at the committee level. “We made a decision, and we’re back here again because of a lawsuit,” he said.

Snyder admitted she found the matrix confusing but said it was the clear will of the committee that recommended it. She noted the system was based on research and discussions with other communities, including Denver.

“I find myself saying the matrix is clunky, but the cap makes sense to me,” Snyder said. “I am in favor of starting slowly, as we were advised to do.”

Snyder also admitted the council was advised parts of the matrix would leave the city open to the possibility of a lawsuit, “and here we are.”

Other councilors, however, disagreed with the suggestion that making a change now would be an insult to city staff. Councilor Jill Duson said all the businesses who applied for this round did so with the matrix in mind, so they tried to meet as many of the requirements the city had laid out.

“So I think option one gets us the largest group of new businesses who have built their business structure around the elements the dual committees put out there in the matrix,” she said.

Councilor Belinda Ray added this has been a long process, with business applicants having already spent considerable time and money. “I do feel that if we are going to in any way abandon the matrix we created, the best way to do it is to award all qualified applicants,” she said.

The council’s decision will still keep the overall cap at 20 businesses moving forward but will get there through attrition. So while Torregrossa estimated there were about 35 applicants who would be awarded licenses with this decision, the city wouldn’t issue more until businesses closed or gave up their licenses.

There could be further upheaval, however, if voters approved Question F on the Nov. 3 municipal ballot, which would lift the cap on businesses. In that light, Councilor Pious Ali asked his colleagues if they had an appetite for postponing their decision until after the election.

But Torregrossa said the city likely wouldn’t send out license approvals anyway before the election.

Several people who spoke during the public comment section of the meeting advocated awarding licenses to all applicants and doing away with the cap.

Charlie Langston, managing director at Wellness Connection, said the council ignored the warnings about a lawsuit. He said Wellness Connection had no desire to delay business licenses, but wanted to protect its constitutional rights.

“The council chose to go down a dead-end road,” he said. “This is costly to business. I really regret this delay but I don’t take any responsibility for it.”

Mark Barnett, the owner of Higher Grounds in Portland, said he supported the council’s amended policy. He said whatever concerns councilors have about the number of applicants, they have to assume the market will ultimately resolve.

“We’re talking about livelihoods, we’re talking about jobs during the pandemic,” he said.

The council also unanimously approved an amendment by Ray that reduces the number of applications disqualified because of tax delinquencies.

Assuming all fees have been paid, the amendment gives applicants a pass if delinquency occurred during the coronavirus pandemic, or if they were delinquent during the last five years because of human error.

Portland Mayor Kate Snyder (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

Snyder reviews ‘unusual’ first year as mayor

Portland Mayor Kate Snyder in her remote State of the City address Monday night acknowledged Zoom meetings are likely “here to stay,” and said she believes they have actually increased public engagement.

Still, she admitted this was an “unusual” State of the City address.

“When I was elected I never could have predicted what my first year as mayor would look like,” she said.

Snyder said she, like everyone else, was caught off guard and the world changed dramatically by the coronavirus pandemic. Every day has been an opportunity to learn, she said, and there have been discussions and debates on approaches along the way.

She said the city and state have come a long way since March 13, when a stay-at-home order was issued as the St. Patrick’s Day weekend was at hand.

“We knew crowds of people gathered indoors was a bad idea, and it remains so,” Snyder said.

While Zoom presents challenges – including later in the meeting when Councilor Jill Duson lost her connection – Snyder said the remote meetings are probably here to stay “for many reasons.”

She said being able to watch and participate from home has given residents more opportunities for civic engagement, because they don’t have to find a babysitter, or deal with parking downtown, or have to stay in Council Chambers until late at night.

Snyder said the council had four goals in the past year: increasing access to rental and home ownership, reducing homelessness, increasing public transit infrastructure and availability, and addressing the property tax burden while approving the municipal and School Department budgets.

She said a major accomplishment was the creation of the Racial Equity Steering Committee, which has been tasked with looking at recommending changes to public safety policies and an independent review of the June 1 protest in which protesters and police clashed.

The pandemic also required postponing the June 14 election for a month statewide. In Portland, that election resulted in the creation of a new Charter Commission. Snyder said the city responded quickly to that by appointing three members to the commission and setting the method for which the remaining nine members will be publicly elected next June.

Snyder said she will do everything she can to “support and engage” the work of the commission.

On the subject of homelessness, Snyder said the encampment that has been in Deering Oaks Park, and the encampment outside City Hall for several weeks during the summer, helped bring several issues to the forefront of everyone’s minds.

“Portland is responding to the urgent needs of many,” she said.

Snyder said the city still faces several challenges in the coming year, and economic forecasts for the country are not promising. She said while the city could say it has faced hard times in the past, “forced austerity” doesn’t help people who are already hurting.

“I’m confident the city of Portland will continue to rise to the challenge and be a problem solver,” she said.

— Colin Ellis

Patrons of The Bar at 8 Exchange St. dine in the street and on the sidewalk. The city will allow outdoor dining on streets and sidewalks to continue until Jan. 4. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)

City Council OKs continued outdoor dining

Portland city councilors Monday night approved a plan that will allow restaurants and businesses to continue operating on some city streets and sidewalks through the beginning of the new year.

The council unanimously extended the city’s existing emergency order for the coronavirus pandemic and added new requirements for businesses that wish to continue outdoor operations through Jan. 4, 2021.

The city closed several streets in the Old Port in the spring to allow restaurants and stores to operate outside as a way to remain in business. The street closures were scheduled to expire Nov. 1, but City Manager Jon Jennings said that after discussions with several businesses the city believed it was important to find new ways to allow businesses to continue serving customers outside into the winter.

The plan will reopen Exchange Street to vehicle traffic, Jennings said, but the city will protect any parklet established over the summer with the cement blocks currently being used to block off the street.

He said it is important for several businesses on Exchange Street to have on-street parking, while Middle Street can largely remain unchanged and closed to traffic, with “a little reconfiguring” to allow snow plows to get through.

Traffic is typically prohibited on Wharf Street, Jennings notes, so that will remain as it is. He said the city is working on ideas to manage Dana Street and Milk Street, where the concern is snow removal.

“I tend to think we need to open that up because of the plow,” Jennings said.

Jennings said the Jan. 4 expiration date was selected because businesses and restaurants tend to slow down during January, February, and March. They are also typically the snowiest months in Maine, he said.

Jennings said the city has an application prepared for businesses to apply for parklets and sidewalk dining beyond Nov. 1.

“We would like to get that out so we know how many we’re dealing with,” he said. “We’re open to any and all ideas, recognizing we have a responsibility to clear sidewalks of snow.”

Jennings said there will not be an application fee, and the city will take responsibility for erecting barriers that will prevent snow from being thrown onto people as cars or plows go by.

The council recently said businesses could apply for grants in a fund of up to $100,000 to allow them to continue outdoor operations into the winter. Jennings said this will likely be for outdoor heaters.

When asked about outdoor pods, he said the city had looked into those, but didn’t feel they would fit within a parking space. He said the city is open to the idea of a business putting such pods on private property. He had also previously said pods would not be the best alternative in the face of the pandemic.

“We don’t see them fitting within the public right of way at this time,” he said.

— Colin Ellis