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VINELAND – A largely agricultural area of northern Vineland is now open to businesses wishing to grow and manufacture recreational marijuana products, though official city policy limits such activities to industrial areas.
After a public hearing Wednesday night, the city zoning board voted 6-1 to overturn the city council-approved restriction and grant a variance to a company that wanted to buy about 18.5 acres at Old Forest Grove Road and North West Boulevard To give. The property is currently owned by peat construction.
Zoning Board member Victoria Lods, who filed the permit application, said she saw no evidence the project would significantly damage neighborhood or city zoning plans.
“Honestly, I see this as a perfect marriage of what Vineland has always been about, which is farming, and being able to thrive, run a business, and support your family here in this town,” said Lods. “I think that combines the industry and our agricultural past perfectly.”
The only no vote came from Jeffrey V. Torchio, who raised questions about traffic and odor control.
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“I know…this is new from the legislature,” Torchio said. “But I think our city council passed an ordinance. They support cannabis cultivation, but they want it in the industrial zones. And I think it’s wrong to deviate from that at this stage of the game.”
The board’s decision also overrides objections from neighbors, about a dozen of whom attended the two-hour public hearing.
The decision also contradicts the views of city planners. Employees want cannabis operations like this to be held in industrial areas.
Lead Engineer Ryan Headley determined that the only cannabis cultivation company already located in Vineland was able to purchase and renovate a former industrial building on North West Boulevard. He said that while the buildings are only a few blocks from Turf Construction, they’re still in an industrial area.
Witnesses from Cannect Wellness of New Jersey LLC, the future operator of the proposed facilities, testified that they could not find suitable industrial property for sale. Founded by investors in Illinois, the company plans a 45,300 square foot facility.
“And my main concern is essentially the character of the neighborhood,” Headley said. “At the moment it is obviously not an industrial area. If you walk south down Boulevard 1,000, 1500 feet, that’s a different story. But this area was largely non-industrial. Historically it was agricultural and then slowly residential.”
Headley said members should also be cautious as state regulations could change in the future, potentially leading to much larger operations.
“So you have to consider that even though it might be 45,000[square feet]there’s an opportunity within a few years to expand that to a 100,000, 150,000 square foot building on this site,” Headley said. “It’s a very different animal…and would have a bigger impact on the neighbors.”
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There is a real possibility that this project will never begin, even with the action of the board.
The joker is that Cannect Wellness must obtain state-issued licenses in order to operate.
As a prerequisite to obtaining a license, New Jersey requires that applicants first provide proof of having purchased or contracted property, along with municipal approval and support for operations.
Across the state, hopeful companies are following the same course as Cannect Wellness by entering into contingent land purchase agreements and obtaining local government permits.
These licenses should be issued in the next few months. But company representative David Michaud testified that there is no guarantee his company will be chosen from the field of hundreds.
Michaud said that phase one of this project, if proceeding, would involve converting an existing building into a growing facility.
He said a second phase, beginning perhaps a year later, would expand this building from about 12,000 square feet to about 45,300 square feet. The variance in use does not allow for a larger building.
Michaud said all operations, including loading and unloading, would be conducted indoors.
The impact on air and water quality, as well as fears of future expansion, were the main concerns of local residents at the hearing.
Donald Ross, who has lived on Old Forest Road for nearly three decades, said the neighborhood was already dealing with a regular smell from a medicinal cannabis facility on New West Boulevard.
Ross turned his ire on the applicant’s counsel, Stephen Barse.
“How would it affect you if it was in your yard?” said Ross.
“Sir, I’m not going to answer the question,” Barse said.
Executive Vice President Joseph Stefano interrupted the exchange. “Please just address the board,” he said to Ross.
Another resident, Werner Zaak, said his family has had a farm for almost 70 years. His family is concerned about the air quality and realizes that the smell is already coming from the existing cannabis facility. And then, he said, there’s a possibility of groundwater contamination.
Zaak said the groundwater has already been contaminated by industrial waste from the Shieldalloy Metallurgical Corp.’s disused site. contaminated. This location is off the boulevard in nearby Newfield.
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“I’m sure you’re all familiar with this place,” said Zaak. “We didn’t find out anything about Shieldalloy until it was way too late. That’s one of the reasons we have municipal (drinking) water in this area, because of the toxins from that place.”
Resident Anthony Peritti Jr. said people shouldn’t have to live with a constant smell of cannabis.
“You have a school less than half a mile away,” Peritti said. “The wind is blowing so, now the children are all playing outside. Well what will they smell? young children They have young children living in the neighborhood. Why would the little kids want to smell that? I don’t want to smell it.”
Some residents said they had faith in the commitments of the Lopergolo family, who own the property for sale. Craig and Margaret Huston said the family had always been good neighbors.
“I think the biggest issue for me is smell,” said Craig Huston. “As long as that’s where they smell best, I’ll support Brian (Lopergolo) and his family. I think he needs an answer to his business problem that is going on.”
The New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission processes license applications. A new round opened in mid-December and the commission says interest is exceptional.
According to witnesses, an applicant for a cannabis license must demonstrate the ability to start operations on a site suitable for zoning and demonstrate that the city government supports the project.
Michaud said the usage variance meets the earlier requirement, but the City of Vineland has yet to officially endorse the project.
In 2021, Vineland granted planning permission for five different types of cannabis businesses to operate here. These types range from cannabis cultivation to retail sales.
In addition to Lods, Stefano, Ryan Flaim, Gena O. Pacitto, Rodolph Luisi, and Darwin Cooper voted for usage variance.
Chairman George LoBiondo withdrew from the hearing.
Joe Smith is a native of NE Philly who was transplanted to South Jersey more than 30 years ago and now keeps an eye on the South Jersey government. He is a former editor and currently senior writer for The Daily Journal in Vineland, Courier-Post in Cherry Hill and the Burlington County Times.
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