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Public hearing set for June 15 as Town Board faces decision on marijuana retail dispensaries

The Riverhead Town Board plans to hold a public hearing on a proposal to opt out of allowing marijuana retail dispensaries and on-site public consumption of marijuana.

The hearing is scheduled to take place during the June 15 Town Board meeting, which starts at 6 p.m. 

Municipalities that opt out will lose out on the 3% share of tax revenue generated by retail sales of marijuana under the new state legislation.

But putting the proposal forward for a hearing doesn’t necessarily mean the board is leaning toward opting out.

According to deputy town attorney Anne Marie Prudenti, state law doesn’t allow the board to set a direct public referendum on issues. Instead, it only allows the public to weigh in via permissive referendum.

A permissive referendum enables the public to submit a petition opposing a given measure within 45 days of its adoption by the Town Board. If that petition is signed by10% or more of the qualified voters from the last presidential election, the Town Board must then place that issue on the Nov. 2 ballot or hold a special election on it, which officials say is very expensive. 

In addition, if a permissive referendum meets the standard for challenge, the measure must be put on the ballot 60 days prior to Nov. 2, Ms. Prudenti said. 

The Town Board recently conducted a marijuana survey and 1,408 people responded to eight questions. Of those, 86% claimed to be Riverhead residents and 13% were Riverhead business owners.

Of those, 73% supported marijuana sales in Riverhead and 61% supported allowing public marijuana consumption in cafes or lounges.

On the question of where to allow retail marijuana sales, 37% said downtown Riverhead, 22% said they on Route 58, 10% preferred industrial areas, 24% said “none of the above” and 8% said “other.”

The state law legalizing marijuana gives municipalities until Dec. 31 to opt out of retail sales and public consumption. Marijuana is otherwise legal in New York State for recreational purposes. Regardless of the town’s decision on opting out, it will also be legal for consumption on private premises. 

Supervisor Yvette Aguiar says the public hearing is necessary, even with the very clear survey results.

“It’s important that everyone engages in this effort,” she said. 

Councilman Ken Rothwell agreed, saying, “By having the public hearing, we also continue to educate the public on this, because I think there’s still confusion about what we are approving. It’s not up to us to legalize marijuana.”

“We always want to hear from the public,” Ms. Aguiar said. 

Ms. Aguiar noted that the 1,408 survey responses mean that only 4% of Riverhead’s population — 33,000 according to the 2020 census — has been heard from on the matter. 

“The argument that 1,400 is not enough to hear from in a town with 33,000 people, how many more are you going to hear from with a hearing?” Councilman Tim Hubbard said. “If you get 12 people at a hearing, that’s a lot.”

He said the survey is more far-reaching than a public hearing.

“You’re probably going to [get] the same 12 to 15 people” at a hearing, he said, adding that he does support holding the hearing. 

“The results of the survey were pretty strong,” Councilwoman Catherine Kent said. “We heard from 1,400 people and it was pretty one-sided.” 

Ms. Kent said she is not opposed to the public hearing but thinks it would only get about five speakers. 

She said moving forward with the opt-out proposal is almost like the town is “negating” the iopinions of the people who completed the survey. 

She doesn’t think the town should opt out. Instead, she said, the town should “carefully govern.”

While the town has no say in whether marijuana is legal or not, it can, through zoning, specify and control the areas of town where it can be sold or publicly consumed, officials say.

Ms. Prudenti said that even in “conservative” states, the results of surveys on marijuana have been pretty consistent, with about 60% to 65% favoring its retail sale and on-site public consumption.