HIGH BRIDGE – The Borough Council heard lengthy public discussions of comments before introducing an ordinance on zoning and taxation rules for potential cannabis businesses in the borough at its meeting on Thursday 13 January.

But first, Mayor Michele Lee began with a minute’s silence for resident Michale Steinwand, a longtime Department of Public Works (DPW) employee and fire department volunteer.

“When he wasn’t working, he was volunteering for High Bridge,” Lee said. “He was a great man, father, grandfather and most of all friend to most of the people he ever met. He is survived by his wife Pam, two daughters and two grandchildren for whom he absolutely lived. It is truly a terrible loss to High Bridge, the Fire Service and the Department of Public Works here at High Bridge.”

Case officer Adam Young began reading a written commentary on the upcoming cannabis business regulation from resident Jennifer Markarian.

“It is my firm belief that the sale of cannabis outside of medical uses and cultivation should not be allowed in our city,” Markarian wrote. “I voted against it at the state level and was dismayed that our state would allow it. Recreational sales should not be allowed. Let’s encourage healthy activities in our small, family-oriented town, not drug use.”

Solitude Village resident Sally Ward congratulated Councilwoman Natalie Ferry on her election as Council Chair at the last meeting. She also congratulated the district on receiving the $65,000 grant, which will be used primarily for Commons park improvements.

“I am pleased with the introduction of the regulation, which addresses the orderly, professional process of setting policies for cannabis businesses in High Bridge,” Ward said. “Good idea.”

Resident Christopher Graham had supplementary things about the Council and its key professionals.

Resident Pablo Delgado said he wanted to take the opportunity to reiterate what Graham said about the council and congratulate the borough on the Commons grant. He also said that the district should consider water and sewage capacities when considering these new cannabis companies.

Resident Colleen Conroy said she agreed with resident Jennifer Markarian’s letter “with all my heart.”

“Also, I just wanted to say about the location of a possible cannabis grow facility, I think it’s a terrible location,” Conroy said. “I think it’s the gateway to our city and so much work has gone into making our city look better and creating the atmosphere of the friendly, thriving community that it is.

“I think our school kids ride their bikes that way and go to Gronsky’s for ice cream,” she said. “I think the neighborhood behind it, this quiet residential area, doesn’t need the smell that’s coming from her no matter what they do and say.”

Resident Elizabeth Murphy agreed with Conroy on the location as it is a residential area next to their neighborhood. She noted that despite additional filtration systems, people near the Readington facility still complain about the smell.

Erin Delgado of Hickory Circle congratulated the council on the Commons grant and asked if part of the grant could also be used for the playground or fields at Union Forge Park, particularly the softball fields.

Administrator Bonnie Fleming said the request submitted to the state was specifically to do with upgrading the commons area, so the county would spend the money on it. But the council could seek another grant for Union Forge.

Local residents Paul Kovacsofsky and Elizabeth Murphy agreed that the planned development is far too close to a residential area.

However, as a parent, School Board President Cindy Sharkey said that a cannabis growing business is contrary to what children are taught in school.

“We teach our children not to use drugs. It is our responsibility as adult parents to make choices that best affect our children.”

North Main Street’s Leah Epstein ordered the council to have that conversation.

Mayor Michele Lee opened the Council’s discussion of the forthcoming introduction of zoning and taxation for cannabis companies with a presentation by Board Member Bonnie Fleming. The county had decided not to comply with or oppose state regulations on cannabis businesses in July 2021.

“It’s important for everyone to understand that tonight’s agenda is to introduce an ordinance that allows for the policies that High Bridge can make,” Mayor Lee said.

“The introduction of this regulation is by no means a guarantee that anyone will be granted a license to sell or grow in High Bridge. There are only a few places where cannabis operations of any kind can be found; t have the real estate.

“We can’t just hang around open to everything because people can come in and demand that an application be filed; we need to set some rules,” the mayor said.

Administrator Fleming said the passage of this ordinance would allow the county to establish terms and conditions for holders of cannabis business licenses and establish a system for taxing those businesses. She said the regulation must be reviewed by the planning committee for consistency with the master plan on Monday, January 24, before the council votes on Thursday, January 27 to adopt it.

The ordinance would allow the county to impose a 2 percent tax on a farmer’s sale to another farmer and a 2 percent tax on a retailer’s sale to a consumer. The tax must be paid quarterly on the same schedule as the property tax. If the taxes aren’t paid, they become a lien on the property in much the same way as property taxes, Fleming said. It also allows the district to limit licensing to just one grower and one retailer.

“The regulation allows us to establish rules of application, including a conceptual plan that addresses how the licensee intends to address odors and waste disposal, signage, parking, any foreseeable changes in operations and safety issues,” Fleming said.

The ordinance ensures that any future changes in operations must be disclosed and compliant with applicable community laws. There would be an annual renewal process, and flaws in the plan could result in the district not renewing the application, Fleming said.

“We’re introducing it now, before anyone shows up with an application,” Councilman Steve Strange said. “If someone did that and we don’t have rules, we can’t say they had to follow our rules because we don’t have rules for them to follow. We can change it later if it’s not good enough.”

Strange suggested that it might be best to include specific penal and enforcement policies to make it clear that the district will not tolerate violations.

“High Bridge would definitely act on any type of violation,” Mayor Lee said. “But the DEP[Department of Environmental Protection]would get their smack down pretty hard, and the state would be the one to revoke their licenses.

District Attorney Barry Goodman agreed that would be the case if the licensee violated the building code.

Councilwoman Lynn Hughes said she agrees with Councilman Strange.

“I’m really concerned about the environment and the impact on the area, and I wouldn’t want to drag it out if they get some sort of small fine from the state while we’re still having the issue,” Hughes said. “I like what Steve said: you’re done, you’ll be stopped right there if you can’t take care of your problem.”

Councilor Schwartz said if the county wants to increase penalties for violations of the odor ordinance, or any other part of the ordinance, “now is the right time to do it.”

Councilor Steven Silvestri asked if the plant would drain the water and sewage system and what chemicals would be used to encourage plant growth. He suggested that the ordinance include a requirement for the county to review the state-mandated environmental impact statement.

Mayor Lee said she wanted to proceed with the passage of this ordinance rather than discussing a specific motion.

Attorney Goodman said the ordinance could be “tweaked” before passage at the next meeting, but if it were severe it would be possible but might require a full change at a future meeting.

Councilwoman Natalie Ferry suggested addressing Strange and Silvestri’s questions before the next meeting and making the answers public.

“The plan is that the people proposing the West Main cultivation facility will present themselves at the next council meeting,” the mayor said.

To view Administrator Fleming’s full presentation, please read this story on HunterdonReview.com.

The mayor introduced an ordinance detailing the fire chief’s duties, including managing fires, rescues, all emergency medical services, incidents involving hazardous materials, and other emergencies. determine what tools and equipment are needed; make decisions about the best methods to control and manage emergency incidents; and direct the work of the staff.

Then, at the beginning of the meeting, a regulation was introduced regarding the presentation discussion on the zoning and taxation of cannabis. The ordinance would allow Class 1 cannabis growers and Class 5 retailers to operate cannabis businesses in certain zones under conditions within their geographic boundaries and would change the taxation of the county ordinance.

Both ordinances will have second readings, public hearings and adoption votes on Thursday, January 27. For the full text of both regulations, see this story at HunterdonReview.com.

The council unanimously passed a resolution awarding Hunterdon Healthcare Occupational Health Services a contract for occupational health services.

The district has confirmed that Concerts in the Park, Movies in the Park, and the Soapbox Race will be held on later scheduled dates.

The next Parish Council meeting will be Thursday, January 27 at 7:30 p.m. via Zoom conference call.