Vineland NJ Officials Approve Cannabis Trade For Agricultural Zone
VINELAND — A largely agricultural area in North Vineland is now open to businesses seeking to grow and manufacture recreational marijuana products, though official city policy restricts such activities to industrial areas.
After a public hearing on Wednesday night, the city zoning board voted 6-1 to overturn the council-approved restriction and issue a use waiver to a business lined up to purchase approximately 18.5 acres off Old Forest Grove Road and North West Blvd. The property is currently owned by Turf Construction.
Zoning board member Victoria Lods, who moved the motion for approval, said she saw no evidence the project would significantly damage neighborhood or city zoning plans.
“Quite frankly, I see this as the perfect marriage of what Vineland has always been about, which is farming, and being able to be successful and run a business and support your family here in this town,” Lods said. “I think it marries industry and our agricultural background perfectly.”
The only “no” vote was from Jeffrey V. Torchio, who cited questions about traffic and odor control.
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“I know…this is new from the Legislative Assembly,” Torchio said. “But I think our city council passed an ordinance. They are in favor of growing cannabis, but they want it in industrial areas. And I think at this stage of the game to deviate from that is a mistake.
The council’s decision also overrules objections from neighbors, about a dozen of whom attended the two-hour public hearing.
The decision also goes against the view of urban planning professionals. Staff members want cannabis operations like these to be maintained in industrial areas.
Supervising engineer Ryan Headley noted that the only medical cannabis growing company already in Vineland was able to purchase and renovate an old industrial building on North West Boulevard. He said the buildings may only be a few blocks away from Turf Construction, but they are still in an industrial area.
Witnesses from Cannect Wellness of New Jersey LLC, the future operator of the proposed facilities, said they were unable to find suitable industrial properties for sale. The company, formed by Illinois investors, is considering a 45,300 square foot facility.
“And my main concern is the character, essentially, of the neighborhood,” Headley said. “Right now, it’s obviously not an industrial area. If you go 1,000, 1,500 feet south on the boulevard, that’s a different story. But this area has not been an industrial area for the most part. Historically it was agricultural then slowly residential.
Headley said members should also be cautious because state regulations could change in the future, perhaps encouraging much larger operations.
“So you have to think that even if it’s 45,000 (square feet), within a few years it’s possible to expand it to…a 100,000 to 150,000 square foot building on this site. “Headley said. “Which is a very different animal…and would have a bigger impact on neighbors.”
There is a real possibility that this project will never get off the ground, even with board action.
The wildcard is that Cannect Wellness must obtain state-issued licenses to operate.
New Jersey, as a prerequisite for obtaining a license, wants applicants to first show proof that they have purchased property or are under contract, as well as municipal permission and support to operate.
Across the state, up-and-coming companies are following the same path as Cannect Wellness, striking conditional property purchase agreements and gaining local government approvals.
These licenses should be issued in the coming months. But, testified company representative David Michaud, there is no guarantee that his company will be selected from hundreds.
Michaud said the first phase of this project, if it goes ahead, would see the conversion of an existing building of approximately 12,000 square feet into a growing facility.
He said a second phase, starting perhaps a year later, would expand that building by about 45,300 square feet. Variance of use will not allow for a taller building.
Michaud said all operations, including loading and unloading, would be done indoors.
Impacts on air and water quality, as well as fears of future expansion, were the main concerns of residents during the hearing.
Donald Ross, a resident of Old Forest Road for nearly three decades, said the neighborhood already faces a regular smell from a medical cannabis establishment on New West Boulevard.
Ross took his anger out on the plaintiff’s attorney, Stephen Barse.
“How would it affect you if it was in your garden?” said Ross.
“Sir, I’m not going to answer the question,” Barse said.
Vice Chairman of the Board, Joseph Stefano, interrupted the exchange. “Just address the board, please,” he told Ross.
Another resident, Werner Zaak, said his family had owned a farm for almost 70 years. His family is concerned about the air quality, noting that the smell is already coming from the existing cannabis facility. And then, he said, there is the possibility of groundwater contamination.
Zaak said groundwater is already contaminated with industrial waste from the defunct Shieldalloy Metallurgical Corp site. This site is off the boulevard in nearby Newfield.
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“I’m sure you all know this place,” Zaak said. “We didn’t find out about Shieldalloy until it was way too late. This is one of the reasons why we have city (drinking) water in this area to begin with, because of the toxic substances in this place.
Resident Anthony Peritti Jr. said people shouldn’t have to live with the constant smell of cannabis.
“You have a school less than half a mile away,” Peritti said. “The wind is blowing in this direction, now the children are all playing outside. Now what are they going to smell? Young children. You have young children living in the neighborhood. Why would young children want to smell that? I don’t want to feel it.
A few residents said they had confidence in the promises of the Lopergolo family, owners of the property for sale. Craig and Margaret Huston said the family had always been good neighbours.
“I guess for me the biggest issue is the smell,” said Craig Huston. “As long as they smell the best there, I support Brian (Lopergolo) and his family. I think he needs an answer for his happening business problem.
The New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission processes license applications. A new round opened in mid-December and the commission said interest was exceptionally strong.
Reportedly, a cannabis license applicant must demonstrate the ability to begin operations on a site suitable for zoning and prove municipal government support for the project.
Michaud said the use gap meets the old condition, but the Vineland municipal government would still need to formally approve the project.
Vineland City Council first added cannabis regulations to its zoning code in 2019, in anticipation of medical cannabis businesses.
In July 2021, Vineland passed three ordinances regarding cannabis businesses with reference to licensing, taxes and zoning. Vineland has approved five different types of cannabis businesses to operate here, ranging from cannabis cultivation to retail.
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 NE Philly native transplanted to South Jersey over 30 years ago, now keeping tabs on the South Jersey government. He is a former and current senior editor of the Daily Journal in Vineland, the Courier-Post in Cherry Hill, and the Burlington County Times.
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