Buena Vista’s Board of Trustees during their Tuesday, Aug. 11 regular meeting, reversed direction on who decides the fate of recreational marijuana in town.
In a 4-2 vote (Trustees Devin Rowe and Amy Eckstein voting no), the board decided to bring the question to the town’s voters in the Nov. 3 General Election, instead of the board adopting an ordinance approving the sale of recreational cannabis.
As already discussed, the board also plans to ask voters for a special tax applied to recreational marijuana; the specific percentage still under discussion. The town has until Sept. 4 to submit ballot language to the county.
If recreational marijuana is eventually approved, current discussion calls for a total of two recreational stores allowed in town. Ascend Cannabis, Buena Vista’s only medical cannabis dispensary, has indicated it wants to expand its offerings to recreational marijuana. That would leave a single slot open.
Board members who had previously supported moving ahead on a revised version of the 2016 draft ordinance said they had received considerable pushback from the public, much of it by email. Town voters turned down recreational marijuana in 2016. Medical cannabis is legal, however.
Trustee David Volpe said he had viewed the marijuana issue as a matter of where adults are able to purchase legal cannabis. Buena Vista is surrounded by towns that sell recreational marijuana, and the argument is that the town is losing out on that additional tax revenue, in addition to tourism dollars being spent elsewhere.
But he said that in the spirit of moving together as a community and “given the hypersensitivity” in both the community and nation, it would be best to put the issue to a vote. He described “a large voice coming at us from a wide variety of people.
“Perhaps it’s best that we just send it to a ballot in November and acknowledge the will of the people together,” he said, “and just move forward as a community.”
Trustee Norm Nyberg brought the motion to the board vote; specifically to direct staff and legal to develop wording to place on the November ballot. Cindie Swisher, who seconded the motion, said she had always been clear about her opposition to recreational marijuana and that she has struggled to be a team player on the issue. She said the recent public response to the marijuana issue was the biggest reaction she has seen in her time on the board.
Swisher said there were well over 150 emails from people wanting to vote on the issue, with the majority against it. She noted that some of those people were talking about the recall of board trustees and she said a public vote “will help the division in our town.”
Trustees Eckstein and Rowe, who cast the no votes, said the board was elected to make decisions and urged that it continue the original course toward approving an ordinance without a public vote.
“Trustees are policymakers. That’s what we do,” Eckstein said before the board voted. She noted that the revisions to the older ordinance are more conservative and “can serve Buena Vista well.”
She also said a group had been busy contacting trustees. “There is a social logjam going on right now and I think it’s important for the public to know that there is a third party that contacted the trustees, that is organizing a referendum. So what that means is even if the special tax passes in November, 125 people can remove that right. So the hundreds of thousands of dollars that could be collected will go away.”
“That’s what trustees are dealing with,” she continued. “There’s a lot of pressure on that and I don’t think we should change our path — which will result in extra staff time — because a small group of people don’t like it and are very vocal about it. Are we just going to send everything to a vote?”
Trustee Rowe concurred that the town would be out hundreds of thousands of dollars without legal recreational cannabis.
“We are elected by the people of Buena Vista to represent and vote for the people of Buena Vista,” he said. He mentioned an “antiquated mindset” on marijuana and noted that it is strictly regulated and “something that could benefit our town.”
Rowe said the infusion of tax dollars would benefit “our kids, our town, our parks and our people, and keep tourism and tax dollars here in this town.”
He also said the money could help alleviate future property tax hikes by having a “little bit of a cushion.”
Mayor pro-tem Libby Fay said she agreed “with the idea that we should be able to be representatives of the community and make the decisions. But this particular issue seems to be so big for people that I think we’re going to create a huge division in the town if we go ahead with the way we planned to do it. So I’m in favor of doing an election on Nov. 3.”
Mayor Duff Lacy described the interactions leading to the town’s approval of medical marijuana in 2012, which included three packed meetings at the community center.
“It was not an easy decision, but it was also a decision that was made by the board… without sending it to a vote, which is an option that you have.” he said. “Just remember that some of those pressures, believe me, can be very impacting. And these are just emails. You should be in a room with a hundred people talking to you.”
The board continued discussion on the ordinance, including particulars on the packaging, map options, a possible flyer at dispensaries on laws of marijuana use, and the application/lottery process for anyone wanting to set up shop. It has one more regular meeting on Aug. 25 to finalize the draft ordinance and approve resolutions for the two ballot questions before the Sept. 4 deadline.
There is no requirement for additional public comment, according to town administrator Phillip Puckett, who noted that people have been able to speak during public comments, which have included pro and con arguments along the way. “This isn’t a public hearing and therefore the board can take action at any time,” he said.