Lowell City Council held two meetings last night: a Committee of the Whole with the Planning Commission followed by its regular bimonthly meeting. Marijuana was the main issue of discussion, but local leaders also talked about the city income tax proposal, a left turn signal on Main Street and passed a resolution for the 2019 Pink Arrow Pride Day among other things.
Ordinances for Adult Use Marijuana
In 2018, Lowell City Council voted to allow recreational marijuana facilities within the city limits. Now, councilmembers are working to iron out the details of how those facilities will be regulated.
The Planning Commission has already completed a draft of a zoning ordinance which would require marijuana facilities to be located at least 1,000 feet away from preschools, child care centers and public and private K-12 schools. They must also be at least 500 feet away from the C-2 District which is Lowell’s historic downtown.
However, the State of Michigan recently announced emergency rules, including the creation of special licenses for designated consumption establishments, temporary marijuana events and other categories. The state changes mean the city has to update its draft zoning ordinance.
In addition to reviewing changes to the zoning ordinance, city attorney Jessica Wood from the Dickinson Wright law firm was on hand to review a regulatory ordinance. While the zoning ordinance focuses on where a business can be located and how it appears to the public, the regulatory ordinance establishes the parameters for receiving a marijuana business license. At the start of the meeting, it was noted that the city will use the term adult use marijuana going forward instead of recreational marijuana.
As presented by Wood, the regulatory ordinance would include the following provisions:
- Applications would be considered on a first come, first serve basis.
- Applicants must meet financial requirements such as not being in default or arrears.
- A Special Land Use permit will be required before a business can open.
- Applicants must pay a $5,000 non-refundable business license fee in addition to zoning fees.
- Security plans must be submitted.
- Criminal checks can be completed but prior offenses related to marijuana would not be grounds for denying an application.
- Businesses have to agree to let the city inspect their premises at any time.
- A marijuana business license cannot be issued to an establishment with another state license, making it impossible for a location to sell both alcohol and marijuana.
- Employers can still require drug testing and fire those who don’t adhere to company policy regarding drug use.
- Landlords can prohibit tenants from smoking marijuana on premises but not from ingesting it in other forms.
Discussion about Marijuana Ordinances
A dozen members of the public were in the audience for the Committee of the Whole, and several addressed councilmembers and planning commission members.
Mike Hooper, who owns a business in Lowell, approached the podium to ask what benefit councilmembers thought the city would reap from allowing marijuana facilities. He also inquired into why there were no setbacks from churches and parks. He noted that marijuana businesses could be located in close proximity to the new North Grand River Riverfront Park off Bowes Road.
Councilmember Cliff Yankovich responded that Lowell voters had approved a state ballot proposal legalizing the recreational use of marijuana in Michigan. He said the councilmembers were simply following the wishes of residents.
As for requiring a minimum distance from churches and parks, Wood said municipalities could make those requirements as long as they had a rationale for doing so. However, no one on the City Council or Planning Commission appeared in favor of adding additional isolation zones. They also nixed requiring buffers between marijuana establishments, noting that the zoning ordinance already restricts possible business sites to a relatively small portion of the city.
Brad Klosner of Greenville asked the council to consider reducing the minimum distance from schools from 1,000 feet to 800 feet. He is hoping to open a marijuana facility at a location 895 feet away from the Bushnell Elementary School property. By reducing the distance to 800 feet, another three parcels on West Main Street would become eligible sites for marijuana businesses.
Police Chief Steve Bukala spoke in opposition to changing the 1,000 foot buffer, and Planning Commissioner Tony Ellis noted the commission had spent a lot of time discussing the distance before settling on 1,000 feet. Councilmembers opted to leave the distance as is rather than shorten it.
Other discussion revolved around how to issue business permits. Councilmember Greg Canfield expressed concern about using a first come, first serve approach. “I think we want high quality candidates,” he said.
Wood argued that the business license criteria was already extensive and would help ensure quality candidates. However, she agreed to return to the council with details on the criteria used by other communities. For instance, Grand Rapids uses a points system to rank business applicants for medical marijuana licenses, and their system takes into account whether someone is a city resident, will hire local workers and other criteria.
Councilmembers also discussed the merits of using a lottery system. Wood said that had been upheld in court as an acceptable way to issue licenses, but she cautioned that almost any system adopted could result in a lawsuit. “Everyone is getting challenged,” she said. “There’s a lot of money [for businesses] at stake.”
No action was taken, and Lowell City Council will discuss the issue further at a future meeting.
Main Discussion in Regular Meeting on City Income Tax
Although scheduled to begin at 7pm, the city council’s regular meeting didn’t commenced until nearly 7:40pm. The Committee of the Whole, which began at 5:30pm, ran for nearly two hours and ended at 7:27pm. Once the regular meeting started, Lowell City Council members spent 50 minutes discussing several topics.
The main issue discussed was administration of the city income tax, should it be approved by Lowell voters in November. Rick Carpenter, president of Innovative Software Services, was on-hand to discuss the use of his company’s CityTax software to process city income tax returns. CityTax is used in varying degrees by all municipalities in Michigan that assess an income tax. It is also widely used in Ohio.
Carpenter explained that his company can gather income tax returns, issue refunds and provide an employee to work part-time in the city to help with taxes as needed. The company would also set up a local phone number that would automatically route callers to support staff at Innovative Software Services.
Canfield asked about the fee structure. Carpenter said it was piecemeal and charged based on what CityTax processes for a city. When Canfield asked whether that averaged out to a certain percentage of revenues, Carpenter provided some revenue and cost examples from other cities. “I know I didn’t really answer your question,” he said, adding that pricing can vary depending on the municipality.
The council was provided with a proposal that included an estimated annual cost of $124,223.75, but Carpenter said some information on it was inaccurate. A $5,000 charge for state tape processing shouldn’t have been included, and the $12,000 for travel expenses for employee staffing should have been $6,000 assuming the employee would only be in Lowell half-time.
Left Turn Signal, Ware Road Landfill, Chili-Cook Off and Pink Arrow Pride
Lowell City Council moved quickly through the remaining items of business.
Councilmembers were informed that MDOT did not want to approve a left turn signal from Main Street to Hudson Street because their data indicated it might back-up traffic on Hudson during peak hours. Representatives from MDOT will be at a Committee of the Whole meeting planned for September 3 to further discuss their findings and suggest other strategies to address traffic congestion at the intersection.
City Manager Mike Burns also provided an update on the Ware Road landfill. In addition to the three testing wells currently on site, an additional three will be placed shortly. Burns expects testing from those wells to begin in four weeks.
Lowell City Council also unanimously approved the use of North Broadway for the annual Larkin’s Chili Cook-Off which will be held on October 12, 2019 in conjunction with the Lowell Harvest Celebration. The council also unanimously passed a resolution proclaiming September 13, 2019 as Pink Arrow Pride Day.
The regular council meeting adjourned at 8:26pm, and the next meeting will be held on Tuesday, September 3, 2019. On that day, a Committee of the Whole with MDOT will be held at 5:30pm followed by the regular meeting at 7pm. Both meetings will be held on the second floor of City Hall.