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Downers Grove

Majority of Downers Grove commissioners oppose marijuana dispensaries

DOWNERS GROVE - Marijuana dispensaries are not likely to join the Downers Grove business community when recreational marijuana use becomes legal in Illinois on Jan. 1, 2020.

Four Downers Grove commissioners have indicated they will support an ordinance prohibiting adult-use cannabis establishments in the village.

The village council is expected to vote on the measure at its Oct. 8 meeting.

The decision has dispensary supporters on the council accusing some opponents of flip-flopping on the issue and opposing the sale of marijuana due to fear, emotion and anecdote rather than evidence.

They've also criticized opponents for closing the door on the additional information and feedback that would have been garnered if the issue went before the plan commission for a public hearing.

The decision against crafting amendments to the zoning ordinance for plan commission consideration was made Sept. 10, one week after five commissioners voiced support for the move.

Commissioners Marge Earl, Cavanaugh Gray, Nicole Walus and Rich Kulovany oppose dispensaries. Mayor Bob Barnett and commissioners Greg Hose and Leslie Sadowski-Fugitt favor them.

If approved, the proposed zoning changes would allow for dispensaries in limited parts of the community such as retail districts on Butterfield Road, Ogden Avenue and 75th Street. Dispensaries would not be allowed adjacent to residential areas or within 1,000 feet of daycare centers, schools or parks.

Opponents argue that the potential sales tax revenue associated with dispensaries is unknown and may be outweighed by the various risks including robberies of dispensaries, the sale of marijuana to minors and the need for police to conduct compliance checks at dispensaries.

“We certainly don’t need to be the first in the area to opt in, nearby communities will be doing it,” Commissioner Marge Earl said at the Sept. 10 council meeting.

Proponents argued that simply considering zoning changes would not necessarily lead to dispensaries. Rather, a plan commission hearing would be an opportunity to gather more input from residents.

Commissioner Rich Kulovany initially expressed cautious support for continuing the dispensary discussion despite his personal opposition to marijuana use.

“First of all I’m not a big fan of marijuana. I’ve seen it do some damaging things to people that are close to me, but then it occurred to me in talking to some of those people that they’re going to buy it, and they’re going to buy it if they have to drive to Villa Park or Lombard or where else it ends up,” Kulovany said at the Sept. 3 meeting.

“So the concept that strikes me is how far do I want people driving in Downers Grove to get it. What are the chances that they are going to light up or consume an edible before they leave? In other words, how much farther do we want intoxicated people to be driving? So my view is the sooner that they can get home, the closer they are to home the better. And even though I’m not a fan of the product, I’m also not a big fan of cigarettes or people who drink too much either.”

Kulovany said he changed his mind on the issue after doing research on the adverse health affects associated with marijuana including the risk of addiction and marijuana’s impact on school performance and development of the cognitive brain.

“So, yeah, it causes me some concern,” Kulovany said. “What we did do was say, ‘there are some risks involved in this, and there are some unknowns involved in this.’”

Gray, meanwhile, warned his colleagues about the potential damage dispensaries could have on the village's reputation.

“If you understand brands and the importance of brands, two things can happen,” Gray said at the Sept. 10 meeting. “Everything you do will either contribute to the development or enhancement of that brand or it tears it down in some small way. And I would only ask, is the decision that we’re making tonight improving the brand or the long-term image of Downers Grove or is it not? I do not believe that it is, so I’m voting against the zoning ordinance to allow dispensaries in the village.”

Hose at the Sept. 17 meeting expressed his displeasure with the change in direction by his fellow commissioners.

“Unfortunately, the decision-making process this council has engaged in thus far has been nothing short of deplorable,” Hose said.

He reiterated that the council on Sept. 3 was in favor of having the plan commission review zoning amendments to allow dispensaries.

“Seven days later, without any new information and without even a heads up to other council members, two council members changed their votes and the majority directed staff to prepare the ordinance that staff just introduced,” he said.

Hose added that the arguments for opting out are related to opposition to the legalization, possession and use of marijuana.

“Ultimately the reason that this council majority supports the ordinance that is requested isn’t zoning related at all,” Hose said.

Sales tax revenue estimates for the village are between $150,000 and $500,000, he said.

“The dollars are real, and the dollars would assist in the budget,” Hose said.

Data-driven decision?

Sadowski-Fugitt emphasized that “being armed with more quality information is always in the best interest of this community.”

But Gray maintained that village staff provided the council with a significant amount of information and research related to marijuana and dispensaries.

“There are 30 resources that have been available for more than a month, yet we’re talking about a stop or slowing or kind of a hindrance in the flow of information. I’m not sure I agree with that,” Gray said at the Sept. 17 meeting.

Earl rejected the notion that additional data would be useful.

“To suggest that there may be more unknown data that may change my mind at this point is incorrect,” she said.

Gray added that only five people addressed the council at the Sept. 3 and 10 meetings regarding the issue.

“There was no overwhelming information that I saw from the public directly,” he said.

But Sadowski-Fugitt said the council cannot gauge community feedback on the issue based solely on the number of people who speak at meetings.

“I think it is really important to know that there are a lot of people who are incredibly intimidated by standing at a microphone in front of their whole community,” she said Sept. 17. “I don’t think that we should discount that fear.”

Sadowski-Fugitt added that the majority of emails received by the council favor dispensaries.

“Right now we are completely going against what our community has shared with us,” she said.

At the Sept. 17 meeting, Mary Blanchard was one of a few residents who spoke during public comment and chastised commissioners for discounting resident emails.

“I find it offensive that the many emails that you’ve received are being discounted by multiple people on the council,” Blanchard said. “And you can bet that I’m going to tell everyone I know that if they want to accomplish anything in this town they better show up and talk in the microphone.”

Wait-and-See Approach

Dispensary opponents stressed that the council can revisit the issue at a later date.

“We could go with a total ban and just wait and see,” Earl said at the Sept. 3 meeting. “See what other communities come up with, you know, around us, and see how it actually impacts them before we jump into the water. We don’t have to do this.”

Two weeks later, Earl reiterated her stance on the issue.

“I’m a registered nurse. The rule of medicine is first do no harm. The one thing that four of us did agree on last week was that we need to take a step back and take a wait-and-see approach and do no harm," she said. "We decided that our town did not need to be in the first phase of roll out of recreational-- recreational--marijuana,” she said with emphasis. That’s for fun-- marijuana for fun.”

“There are far larger issues on the village docket than this, and wasting staff time and tax dollars chasing after data that four of us already agree is unobtainable by the state-mandated deadline would be irresponsible,” Earl added.

Kulovany said he was not opposed to revisiting the issue at a later time. In the meantime, the village will be able to observe the impact dispensaries have on nearby communities that allow them, he said.

“Let’s not focus on the studies,” Kulovany said. “Let’s focus on the actual real world results in communities near Downers Grove.”

Walus voiced a similar sentiment.

“I would like to pause when it comes to cannabis businesses in our town, and I would like to emphasize pause,” said Walus, adding that the feedback she has received from residents on the issue was evenly divided.

Walus added that the state will issue a second round of dispensary licenses in December 2021, and the village could reconsider the issue at that time. The first round of licenses will be awarded on May 1, 2020.

But Sadowski-Fugitt said the next round of licenses are likely to be rewarded to communities that have been affected by the drug war and Downers Grove will not qualify.

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