September 17th, 2019 1:30 PM
Recreational cannabis dispensary owners, who will begin opening shops across the state next year, will have few hurdles from the Village of Oak Park, following a recent decision from the Oak Park village board.
The board, in a split vote at its Sept. 16 meeting, rejected a recommendation by the Plan Commission to make the dispensaries a so-called special use in the zoning code, which would have required dispensary owners to present their plans to the public and get approval from the board of trustees.
Trustees voted 4-3 to make the business type a permitted use, which requires no specific approval by the board or public hearing. The yes votes were cast by Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb and trustees Deno Andrews, Dan Moroney and Arti Walker-Peddakotla, while the dissenting votes came from Susan Buchanan, Simone Boutet and Jim Taglia.
The issue was first presented to the Oak Park Plan Commission, which unanimously rejected a recommendation from village staff to make the dispensaries a permitted use.
If the board had made the dispensaries a special use, owners would have had to present their business plan to either the Plan Commission or Zoning Board of Appeals – the two bodies would have shared the responsibility – and given the public the opportunity to support or oppose the specific proposal.
Dispensary owners then would have had to present the proposal to the full Board of Trustees as well, similar to the way restaurateurs must gain approval from the Liquor Control Review Board and full Board of Trustees before obtaining a liquor license.
Municipalities are prevented by state law from establishing such a review board, so the zoning use change would have established a de facto review board for cannabis establishments.
Laura Brown, an Oak Park parent of three teenagers, urged trustees to study the topic of cannabis legalization more thoroughly before deciding, noting that use of the drug can cause depression, anxiety, psychosis and suicidal ideation in teens.
"Think about the impact and effect this is going to have on our children and our community," she said.
Kelly O'Connor, prevention services manager for Oak Park Township who testified as a resident, said Oak Park already is a permissive community when it comes to underage alcohol and drug use. She noted that 20 percent of 8th-12th graders in Oak Park have used cannabis in the last 30 days.
"When we normalize an addictive substance, we do a disservice to our community," she said.
Oak Parker Brian Bobek testified in favor of permitted use because his company Providence Dispensaries will be submitting an application for a dispensary in town. He said opening a dispensary is a "high-risk endeavor that requires a fantastic amount of work."
He said that the medical dispensary already in town – Seven Point at 1132 Lake St. – which will transition to a recreational shop, limits the amount of space available to open other dispensaries in town. The state law approved by Gov. J.B. Pritzker requires 1,500 feet — a little over a quarter of a mile — between dispensaries.
"We are not a multi-state operation flush with cash and resources," Bobek said, arguing that more regulation would make it harder for mom-and-pop dispensaries to get in the business.
Trustee Simone Boutet attempted to delay the vote, arguing that the board and village should study the issue closer before deciding on the zoning change. "I think this is something we should look at in the context of the entire topic," she said. "We should have a more robust exploration of it."
Her attempt to table the issue, though, was defeated in a 5-2 vote, with Trustee Buchanan as the other yes vote.
Trustee Walker-Peddakotla said she believes that legalization of recreational cannabis use is a good thing, adding that those who have been negatively impacted by the criminalization of cannabis should be first in line to get a dispensary license.
Trustee Andrews said it should not be up to the board to decide who is allowed to open a dispensary in the village. He said a lot of racial and socioeconomic bias comes along with residents opposing or supporting the opening of such establishments.
"I've heard people say, 'We don't want a brewery at Lake and Austin because it will promote drinking in Austin,'" he said.
He argued that the village should set standards on things like advertising and preventing dispensaries from targeting vulnerable populations, adding, "Once we set those standards, I don't think we should have a public hearing every time someone wants to open a dispensary."
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