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Houghton looks to remove marijuana limits

Image by City of Houghton The crosshatched sections of this draft map show the locations where a recreational or medical marijuana retailer are allowed in Houghton. Zoning restrictions preclude them from being located anywhere else in the city.

HOUGHTON — The Houghton Planning Commission voted to schedule a public hearing for modifying a city zoning ordinance to remove any limit on the number of medical or recreational marijuana retailers, reasoning that the constraints imposed by geography and the marketplace will provide a natural cap.

Earlier this month, the city council voted to allow recreational marijuana sales within the city. It also voted to send the ordinance including zoning restrictions for recreational marijuana back to the Planning Commission. 

The council had requested the limit on retailers be raised from one to three. Members of the public had commented the one-retailer limit could be regarded as unfair. It might also open the city to lawsuits, city officials said. 

Kyle Blomquist, a member of the Iron Mountain City Council, urged the Planning Commission to consider removing the cap on the number of licenses. In Iron Mountain, limits had led to a competitive application process that became overly complex and emotionally fraught, he said. 

“We tried to make it as clear as possible,” he said. “It became matters of degrees that became shades of grey and people just got very upset by how the whole process was held, despite our best efforts.”

Planning Commission members largely agreed with Blomquist’s thinking. The Planning Commission voted 6-1 to set up a public hearing for the amended ordinance, with City Manager Eric Waara voting against it. 

“For a city the size of Houghton and where it’s located, it’s hard for me to conjure up that there would even be three,” said Vice Chairperson Bill Leder. “But I’m not sure that if we’re concerned about competition, that there’s much logic in limiting the number at all.”

Waara displayed a map with the allowed locations at Tuesday, which apply to both recreational and medical marijuana. The areas include existing retail space along Razorback Drive, as well as open land where a business could build a facility. 

There would be about a dozen properties inside the area that could be used, Waara said. If you include the separate storefronts that could conceivably become vacant eventually, that number is even higher, said Commissioner Mike Needham. 

Restrictions on location — such as not being within 1,000 feet of a school or church — eliminate other areas of the city. 

Needham said he could go either way on the restriction. Waiting to see how many businesses apply could give the Planning Commission more perspective, he said. 

“Maybe a month from now we’ll make a decision that’s a little different than what we might make tonight,” he said. 

Delaying a public hearing could discourage potential applicants, given the long process they face already, said Commissioner Dan Liebau. 

Chairperson Tom Merz recalled numerous council meetings where people said the city should not determine winners and losers. 

“People have said ‘Do we need more pizza places?”, ‘Do we need more auto parts places?’,” he said. “My response always is, ‘Well, we’re going to find out.'”

The first potential applicant is Northern Specialty Health, the city’s sole medical marijuana dispensary. The Planning Commission scheduled a public hearing on its request for a special land use permit. He did not oppose the public hearing on the cap. 

Both hearings will take place at the Planning Commission’s June 23 meeting. If the Planning Commission approves it then, it would move to the city council, which would have to set up its own public hearings.

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