County Executive Steve Schuh’s administration unveiled legislation Friday that would restrict variances for medical cannabis dispensaries, the same day the county employee responsible for approving those variances worked his last day.
Doug Hollmann, the county’s administrative hearing officer, is no longer with the Anne Arundel County government as of Friday. County officials wouldn’t comment on his departure. Hollmann’s office did not return a request for comment.
The county asked former city and county attorney Jon Hogdson to serve as the new hearing officer effective Monday.
The hearing officer approves and denies zoning reclassifications, special exceptions and variances.
“Frankly, we never envisioned there would be this many variance requests and that they would be granted at the percentage they were granted,” said Owen McEvoy, Schuh’s spokesman.
The variances in question are related to medical cannabis dispensaries and rules approved by the Anne Arundel County Council in 2015. Legislation that will be introduced at Monday’s council meeting will prohibit granting any variances related to restrictions passed in 2015.
Schuh opposed having medical cannabis in the county as state lawmakers pressed forward with medical cannabis issues.
A ban wasn’t supported by the council, so Schuh and the council compromised on a set of rules that were among some of the strictest in the state. Dispensaries located north of Route 50 or dispensaries located “north of the northeast shore of the South River may not be located within 1,000 feet of a dwelling or residentially zoned property, the lot line of a public or private school, or the lot line of real property owned by the Board of Education,” according to the law. Businesses also needed access to arterial or higher classified roads, place “no loitering” signs and they can’t be located within a mile of another licensed dispensary.
In theory, this would have limited available locations for dispensaries. But county officials felt the spirit of that law wasn’t being followed despite the variances being approved legally.
There have been 11 different requests for dispensaries and nine of those cases included a variance request.
In every case a variance was requested, the county Planning and Zoning Office recommended denying the variance and special exception application. Special exception applications are required for dispensaries as it allows for a public hearing. Special exceptions do not mean the project is not allowed in the zoned area.
In four instances, the administrative zoning officer granted the application despite the recommendation to deny.
McEvoy said he didn’t think the strict rules forced the variance requests.
The pattern was “unsettling” and it is part of the county executive’s broader push to clean up the county’s variance and modifications laws, McEvoy said.
Schuh has announced a legislative package that will include bills making it easier to approve minor changes while increasing scrutiny on more complicated variance and modification requests.
“The variance process wasn’t envisioned to circumvent the rules of the County Council,” McEvoy said. “Given the newness of these facilities, there is a lot of community concerns regarding these facilities and the newness of the law. We feel you shouldn’t be able to vary it.”
Schuh’s legislation looks to have majority support. The Capital contacted all seven county councilmen with four returning phone calls as of press time. Councilmen John Grasso, R-Glen Burnie; Derek Fink, R-Pasadena; Andrew Pruski, D-Gambrills, and Chris Trumbauer, D-Annapolis, said they supported the legislation.
Of course, they had varying reasons.
Trumbauer supports the medical cannabis industry and said the county’s current rules on locations of medical cannabis facilities are too harsh, but were the results of compromise between the council and Schuh’s administration.
Pruski’s comments were in line with Trumbauer’s.
“That’s what we were able to move through the council, that’s what we need to honor,” Trumbauer said. “This isn’t anything against the medical cannabis industry — this is trying to shore up legislation we passed a few years ago.”
Fink also said he was a co-sponsor on the legislation. He was supportive of the stricter requirements for medical cannabis dispensaries and said Schuh’s new bill will ensure county law is being followed.
“It is frustrating to see these properties get around the rules from time to time,” Fink said. “From my point of view it looks like the original ordinance is being disregarded.”
Grasso said he supported the bill because dispensaries were “winding up in communities where people don’t want that stuff around.”
When it comes to restricting the location of dispensaries, Grasso also said he and “Brother Schuh were on the same page with that, no doubt about it.”