Some two dozen Cooperstown residents were almost evenly divided in comments during a public hearing Monday, December 6, to address a pending Board of Trustees vote that would find the Village opting out of allowing the retail sale of marijuana within Cooperstown’s borders.
New York legalized the sale of marijuana in April, and allowed local governments to choose whether they want dispensaries and lounges where customers could smoke on-site. To opt out, however, that same state law requires a local government to pass a local law no later than December 31, 2021. Failure to do so automatically opens the locality to dispensaries and lounges; those local governments that vote to opt out prior to the year-end deadline may repeal that local law through permissive referendum at a later date to allow for retail sale.
“We can do a permissive referendum only if we opt out of the state law before December 31,” Mayor Tillapaugh said. “It’s a procedure that lets us keep our options open. If we don’t do something by the end of the year, we’re stuck; if we opt out now, we can opt back in at a later date.”
Mayor Tillapaugh said the Village Board of Trustees plans to vote on its opt-out resolution at its December 20 meeting.
“We have a motion on the Floor now to allow for a permissive referendum in our March elections,” the Mayor said. “Had we done this any earlier, we would have had to hold a special election.”
“I’m not closing the public comment on this,” she said at the close of the December 6 hearing. “We want to know your opinions. We welcome your e-mail, phone calls, letters, whatever right up until our vote on the 20th.”
Residents supporting the opt-out law – and keeping pot stores out of the Village – cited tourism implications, Cooperstown’s reputation as a family-friendly destination, public health implications, and overarching fear of making pot more readily available as their chief concerns.
“My primary concern is how it will affect Cooperstown and how families see the village,” said Jim Dean. “Our tourists in the summer are, mostly, families with children. They visit the Baseball Hall of Fame, the Farmers’ Museum, and the Fenimore House.
“I can’t imagine people coming to Cooperstown to visit dispensaries will stick around afterward to go to the museums,” he said, eliciting chuckles from attendees. “I don’t know. Perhaps I’m wrong.”
Like others who spoke at the meeting, Mr. Dean said he favored the opt-out resolution so that Village residents could vote later on a public referendum to either allow or disallow dispensaries and lounges.
“Let the residents come out and vote and that will be the end of it, one way or the other,” he said.
Many expressed frustration that New York State had yet to issue regulations accompanying the new law, leaving municipalities in the dark about its actual implementation.
Bill Waller, asking the Board to opt out, was among them.
“I don’t know what you’re opting in for,” he said. “The Cannabis Control Board hasn’t finished its work.”
In a conversation with The Freeman’s Journal, Mayor Tillapaugh echoed that particular frustration.
“Had the Cannabis Control Board actually met to lay out the regulations, we might not be so far behind in the process,” she said. “In one of our webinars with the state, they said that the regs would be promulgated by September 20. They finally met on October 6 and October 20, but still nothing.”
Acknowledging earlier comments about Colorado’s laws permitting retail sale of marijuana, Mr. Waller said, “Yes, it’s legal in Colorado. There are a lot of things that are legal elsewhere that we don’t allow in New York. We won’t even let a Dunkin’ Donuts in Cooperstown, so why are we talking about letting a pot store open up?”
Others disagreed, though — turning to the Colorado experience as evidence of the success of retail dispensaries and lounges.
“I cannot underestimate the positive economic benefit to the community,” said Dylan Arnot. “Studies on the economic benefit in states like California, Colorado, and Massachusetts show a significant impact helping their local economies.”
“We hear a lot of talk about the impact that dispensaries might have on tourism,” he said. “Colorado and Massachusetts saw increases in hotel occupancies. New jobs in construction, farming, hotels, recreation facilities — they all increased. When the federal prohibition on marijuana ends — and it will end — those localities in New York that got on board first with retail sales will have a leg up.”
Noah Johannesen addressed the hearing, telling the Board he is a lifelong resident of Cooperstown who sees no downside to allowing the retail sale of marijuana.
“Having worked in the tourist industry here for years, I’m confused as to why people think it would be a turn-off,” he said. “It’s so much safer to have a centralized and controlled location for buying marijuana. You undermine the black market where they use pot to try to sell more dangerous things like fentanyl, cocaine, and heroin. They’ll lose access to people who don’t want that stuff in the first place.”
Others urging Trustees to allowing dispensaries and on-site consumption lounges agreed, citing better regulation of the product and access to it, a recurring revenue stream for the Village, and the inevitability of legal dispensaries and lounges just outside Village limits.
Many equated a dispensary operating legally to a liquor store operating legally within Cooperstown; opponents expressed concern about where dispensaries might be cited. Mayor Tillapaugh said the Village would begin to examine those issues in January 2021.
“We’re trying to be proactive on this,” she said. “We can use zoning regulations to determine time, place, and manner for these businesses the same way we do for others.”
The Board of Trustees plans a December 20, 2021 vote on the opt-out / permissive resolution measure.