THREE OAKS — Many voices were heard during an Aug. 19 Three Oaks Village Council special meeting focused on how the community will deal with marijuana.

The lone agenda item dealt with the idea of attempting to challenge through legal action by seeking an injunction from Berrien County Trial Court (at an estimated cost of about $10,000) a citizen-initiated Nov. 3 ballot initiative that would allow marijuana businesses to operate in the village. That proposal was discussed, but not voted on, during a hour-and-a-half long session that saw a variety of issues related to legalized marijuana discussed by council members and citizens.

Early in the meeting Village President Dave Grosse said “it seems to me that zoning is the sole purview of the legislative body. Citizens cannot petition for zoning,” later stating that it seems that the ballot initiative would establish zoning. He gave as a example a portion that states “property where the proposed marijuana establishment is to be located may not be within any area zones exclusively for residential use.”

“In words it could be anywhere else,” Grosse concluded.

This view was later disputed by several public comment speakers.

Village Council and Planning Commission member Colleen Newquist asked whether the council would have the right to modify zoning of the ballot initiative is passed.

Village Attorney Chuck Hilmer said it’s not clear if the village has that authority or not, later saying he thinks the village’s ability to do so would be jeopardized based on previous legal decisions.

Newquist asked why the council doesn’t know the answer in time for the meeting, with Grosse noting that they only found about the ballots being printed two hours ahead of the session. He later said the ballot language may be changed by state or county officials and also affects Three Oaks Township.

One of the many voices heard during the public comments portion of the virtual Zoom app meeting was Josh Colton, who said he was the attorney “who drafted this document.”

Colton said he has represented and helped a number of people submit ballots, but this one was different and unique.

“It was the first ballot I’ve ever submitted for an individual who had no business ties or no stake in the end results here … This individual purely is an active member of the community who felt passionately and regurgitated some of the outrage that we’ve heard today over the inaction of the … council over the last year and a half plus.”

Normally Colton said people seeking ballot initiatives also are securing property they believe will increase in value as a result.

Colton said under the ballot initiative the municipality has the ability to create reasonable regulations such as creating application processes and providing additional guidance for zoning (giving examples such as not allowing an industrial processing facility in a commercial district without a special land use authorization).

The possibility of the village adopting its own marijuana ordinance ahead of the Nov. 3 election, which has been discussed previously by the Planning Commission, was mentioned by Planning Commission Chairman Gene Svebakken, who said there has been a great deal of public input, said hopefully an ordinance can be drafted by the Planning Commission that incorporates local input to go to the Village Council for a public hearing.

“There is still time for use as a community to develop an ordinance that can be passed prior to the election,” he said.

Newquist said the Village Council could have prevented the situation with the ballot initiative if it had acted earlier, adding that recommendations were made by the Marihuana Committee in December of 2019.

“I think that as a council we didn’t do our due diligence … We kicked the can down the line so long that we’re at a point where we’re trying to pay $10,000 for an injunction to stop what’s going on when we could have prevented it,” she said.

Grosse said while the “wheels of government turn slowly,” the Planning Commission is currently working on an ordinance, although Newquist was critical of a first draft that called for marijuana businesses to be put it the enterprise park “which was never suggested by anyone.”

Village Manager Dan Faulkner said the draft ordinance language can be changed when it comes to locations of businesses.

Several of those speaking during the public comment portion of the meeting expressed their suspicions that the idea of locating marijuana businesses in the undeveloped industrial park was a way to avoid having any marijuana businesses in Three Oaks.

Among those making public comments during the virtual Zoom meeting were:

• Laura Roberts said she doesn’t like pot and doesn’t smoke it but feels the village needs this kind of business to get revenue to deal with sewer ponds, water, sidewalks and other issues.

• Devin Loker (who identified himself as an attorney) said the ballot initiative seems to be simply a copying of state requirements, adding that unless the village tries to place a marijuana business in a residential area it gives local officials all the authority to zone individual licenses as to where they go.

• Angela Reichert thanked all of the people wanting to make an investment in the village of Three Oaks, adding that downtown business owners deserve the ability to have more customers.

Carrie Lintner said almost every downtown business owner would love to have such businesses in that area of Three Oaks because the COVID-19 pandemic has caused some to lose their businesses with others having trouble staying open.

• Suzanna Bierwirth said she is looking for a compromise between letting the public vote and having local control over zoning.

• Tyler Ream said his reading of the ballot initiative language is that a cannabis business can’t be in a residentially zoned area or within 500 feet of a school. “It doesn’t say that cannabis businesses can be everywhere else, it says they can’t be in those locations.”

• Gavin Gray said he is opposed to spending money “the village doesn’t have” to hire lawyers and “fight something we don’t understand … It makes no sense.”

Rebecca Ann Becker (in written comments) indicated she feels taxpayers should be the ones to vote, noting that there are plenty of empty buildings in Three Ooaks that can be used for this purpose. “It should be passed as it will bring new businesses and tax revenue to Three Oaks and keep our businesses that are there thriving.”

• Marco Chavarry said  “Let people vote,” adding that he feels there is plenty of time to implement more guidelines.

• Harley Sherman noted that the enterprise park is undeveloped, and by the time it is it will be “way too late” to find anyone looking to open a marijuana business sin Three Oaks. He urged local officials to give strong consideration to building up foot traffic in the downtown area that could bring immediate results in terms of revenue streams.

• Darlene Heemstra  (a Planning Commission member) said the Village Council hasn’t done anything with what commission has sent it on the marijuana issue. “Now it’s time for the people to decide.”

• Joe Hinman credited local committees that have been dealing with the issue for doing a lot of work, but said he supports letting the issue go to a vote so the can doesn’t get kicked down the road. He also said the enterprise park makes no sense.

• Nick LaFlex said he feels there is a level of distrust with certain people on the council for seeming to maneuver enterprise park into the strategy, adding that he believes the undeveloped park goes back to township is something is not done there by November.

• Thomas Pauly said he has been to most of the marijuana meetings and feels members did their due diligence, but said he heard nothing about the enterprise park which he feels is a way of putting something out there that will make the issue disappear with no income coming in.

• Jennifer Ream said she’s looking forward to voting on the ballot initiative. “After two years of inaction by the council I believe it’s best left up to the voters because at this point we’re not getting any further.”

• Kim Pruitt said the issue should go to a vote, citing a lack of trust with some village officials.

• Tom Flint called using residents’ tax money to do something against them after they supported putting an initiative on the ballot a slippery slope.

In the end no one on the Village Council made a motion to try and block the ballot initiative through legal action, with member Steve Graziano saying “I’m not going to stop democracy. I’m going to let the people vote.”   

Graziano added that he wants to come up with an ordinance that the Village Council can pass its version to give voters a choice in November.

“This is the will of the people,” said Newquist “Why take that right away?”

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