On Tuesday night, a rare capacity crowd filled the Laurel Municipal Center to help determine the fate of the Tastee Diner—the sale of which is pending to Pure Hana Synergy, the medical marijuana dispensary which plans to modify the historic building to fit its usage. After an emotional session that ran over an hour and a half, the City’s Planning Commission voted unanimously to deny the recommendation to the Board of Appeals.
The full hearing is below, courtesy of Laurel TV, with the Diner agenda item beginning at the 27:35 mark:
Pure Hana’s owner, Francesca DeMauro-Palminteri, spoke at length about her intention to bring the alternative medicine to Laurel, citing its benefits—particularly to veterans suffering from PTSD and other disabilities.
Members of the Planning Commission had a few initial questions for Christian Pulley and Robert Love of the City’s Department of Economic and Community Development, who’d frankly treated this hearing as a formality. When asked for an update on the City’s most recently approved dispensary—Mr. Love reported that the facility plans to open in approximately 30 days in the shopping center at Route 1 and Cherry Lane.
They were also asked about the fact that only two licensed dispensaries are allowed per district. Laurel is part of the 21st District, which as you can see, is quite large:
The district extends across both Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties, from College Park to Odenton—and only two dispensaries are allowed to serve it. Laurel already has one of them—the aforementioned dispensary slated to open next month at Route 1 and Cherry Lane. If Pure Hana is awarded the second location, both would be in the city of Laurel limits—barely over a mile apart (and take special note of that—we’re going to come back to this point shortly).
The concern from the Commission was valid—isn’t that going to cause yet another traffic problem, with everyone in the 21st District having to come to Laurel?
The issue of the two dispensaries barely being over a mile apart is critical, as Mr. Rick Wilson pointed out that the distance between 118 Washington Blvd. and the new dispensary at Cherry Lane is not the 1.1 miles that the City claims. “It’s more like 5,281 and a quarter feet,” the commissioner said. Mr. Love acknowledged that “It’s very close, but they just meet it.”
The anxiously-awaited public hearing was opened, and a number of speakers approached the podium, including Jhanna Levin of the Laurel Historical Society—who lamented the negotiation between Pure Hana and Mayor Craig Moe last Friday, which would still result in the destruction of the diner.
I made the trip to Laurel to speak as well, hoping to remind the Commission of the importance of preserving the diner as it currently is—fully intact—and taking advantage of this incredible opportunity to work with all involved to move it to Main Street, rather than have it be sacrificed in the construction of a new dispensary. You can see my presentation at the 58:47 mark of the video above, but it’s transcribed below:
I started the petition that now has over 2,300 signatures urging the city to find a way to relocate the historic—and it is historic—Tastee Diner to Main Street.
There’s a line in the 1982 Barry Levinson film, Diner, that says simply, “We always have the diner.” For nearly 90 years, that’s a sentiment that’s been true in Laurel. Not only have we always had the diner, it’s been open around the clock—24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The only time it’s closed, is Christmas Day. So it’s sadly ironic that as we near the holidays, this might be the end of the road. Worse, the City’s rushing to push this sale through.
Pure Hana isn’t just taking over any old building. It’s taking over a legacy. Because we have always had the diner.
If you grew up in Laurel, you know it’s part of the city’s fabric. Your parents ate at this diner before you were born… Your grandparents ate at this diner. If you were fortunate to grow up and leave Laurel for bigger and better opportunities, you knew that whenever you came back, you’d always have the diner.
That’s something not many towns can be proud of anymore. An authentic diner that’s literally served us for generations is something that should be celebrated—not rushed to its demise.
I’ll say this again: The City of Laurel has a chance to do something truly special.
When you first learned that this diner was quietly up for sale, something should’ve clicked in your collective mind… and said, “We need to save this building… We need to move this diner to Main Street.” Even if you didn’t realize what you had, you’re surrounded by people who value this town’s history. And we would’ve told you in a heartbeat.
The City refuses to explore any of these ideas for relocating the diner, where it could be revitalized under new ownership—and Pure Hana could open according to their original plans, without this façade modification that would only serve as a constant reminder of a lost opportunity for us all.
The City already has resources—the Maryland Main Street designation, packed with relocation incentives; the Community Redevelopment Authority, who’s been conspicuously and inexcusably absent through all of this, despite owning the very land on Main Street that could accommodate the diner.
You have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something truly good for Laurel—something that could transform Main Street for generations to come. So that your children… and your children’s children, will also be able to say, “We always have the diner.”
I’ve explained why this would be a good thing. Before you agree to this sale, it’s time for the City to explain why they think it isn’t.
Of the three Tastee Diners in Maryland, only Laurel’s has never been listed as a historic landmark. This is a grievous oversight by the City, which has always had the authority to designate it. It’s one of only two remaining Comac diners known in existence. It’s the model that inspired the American stainless steel diner archetype. Regardless of what Mayor Moe or anyone else says, it is historic. And it belongs on Main Street.
When the diner’s previous owners, Walter and Harry Susini, signed the first lease in 1933, they purchased the land from John H. Fetty—who happened to be Laurel’s mayor at the time. The deed says that the property already included a building “known as the Laurel Diner”.
So it’s ironic that this diner’s lengthy history actually began with a mayor who made sure it was poised for long-term success. Today’s mayor, for whatever reason, seems a little too eager to be rid of it.
After the final speaker had shared her concerns about the potential loss of this essential piece of the community, the Planning Commission set about its business. And the subject of distance and oversaturation came up again in the motion made by Rick Wilson.
Reminding those in attendance that the Commission’s role isn’t to determine anything other than whether or not Pure Hana can put their dispensary at this address, Mr. Wilson stated,
I strongly believe that we have adequate coverage of medical marijuana. Anybody that needs it can drive 3,700 feet from this location to the north and go to an existing dispensary… four and a half miles to Burtonsville, and there’s an existing dispensary… and 5,282 feet to Cherry Lane, and there will be a dispensary within X number of days. I don’t believe we need another dispensary. So I would move that we deny the recommendation to the Board of Appeals.Hon. G. Rick Wilson
Those in attendance (at least, those not on the Pure Hana payroll) broke into applause—applause that only intensified when Mr. John Kish seconded the motion, and the reality began to sink in that this sale was not going to be approved. As the roll was called, each member of the Commission unanimously carried the motion.
Washington Post reporter Dana Hedgpeth (who’d just written a great piece in Sunday’s paper) was there for a follow-up report, and Fox 5 News was on the scene to produce a segment as well—which I had the surreal pleasure of watching on one of the TVs at (where else?) the Tastee Diner.
While at the diner, decompressing with a grilled cheese and cold beer, one of the cooks appeared from the back kitchen. Charles Durocher, a Vietnam veteran who proudly displays that honor on the baseball cap he wears, came over and shook my hand. The diner staff had been watching the Laurel TV broadcast of the Planning Commission meeting live. “I just wanted to say thank you.” Charles is one of at least two veterans I know of who work at the diner—hardworking veterans who’ve continued to do their jobs in spite of the palpable fear that the business will soon be sold.
I immediately thought of the veterans that Ms. DeMauro-Palminteri had spoken of earlier in the evening, and wondered if she’s aware of the veterans at the diner, whose modest jobs depend on that diner staying open.
Pure Hana didn’t comment after the ruling, but they’re expected to appeal the decision at the December 20th Board of Appeals meeting, also at the Laurel Municipal Center, starting at 7PM. I would urge everyone to attend that meeting as well, just in case the Boardmembers interpret anything differently.
Speaking of interpreting things differently, here’s something that might be critical…
After talking to Councilman Carl DeWalt, the stipulation that dispensaries must be at least one mile from each other within the city took an interesting turn. Is that rule really limited to “within the city”—or is it literal?
Here’s an excerpt from Laurel’s Unified Land Development Code, which actually cites the rule as defined in the Code of Maryland Regulations (“COMAR”):
I’m not a lawyer—or a politician, (and God knows I’d never want to be either) but that document doesn’t say anything about the one-mile rule being limited exclusively to within the City of Laurel. It says “The premises may not be located within one-mile of ANY other licensed premises of a licensed dispensary of Medical Cannabis”. And it says that’s a Maryland regulation, not a City of Laurel one.
If that interpretation is correct, now you have to take into account the even shorter distance between the diner’s location at 118 Washington Blvd. and Revolution ReLeaf—the dispensary just up the street at the former Sam & Elsie’s. That’s definitely less than a mile away. Or, as Rick Wilson astutely noted, it’s only 3,700 feet away.
Needless to say, somebody’s going to have a lot of explaining to do, if it turns out that Pure Hana never should’ve even gotten this far along in the process. That seems like an important point that they should’ve squared away long before any of these plans developed.
That having been said, assuming the Board of Appeals upholds the Planning Commission’s recommendation, what’s next? We’ve finally heard from Tastee Diner owner Gene Wilkes, who admitted to the Washington Post that he’s had it up for sale for the past five years. He still wants to sell, and at 75 years old, that’s certainly his right.
Now is the perfect opportunity for the City of Laurel to rectify a few things. The diner needs to be given the historic designation it deserves, first and foremost. Next, the City of Laurel should be the ones to purchase it from Mr. Wilkes.
Let’s not forget the City’s press release from November 30th, which stated:
All agreed that the site of the current Tastee Diner is a notable landmark and a building that is very worthy of preservation for historical reasons.“Mayor Reaches Agreement with Developer of Tastee Diner Site,” Press Release, 11/30/18
It also said something else:
The Mayor has also asked the developer to allow the City of Laurel to have the right of first refusal for any future sale of the Diner.“Mayor Reaches Agreement with Developer of Tastee Diner Site,” Press Release, 11/30/18
Those are quotes directly from the City’s press release, finally acknowledging what we’ve been trying to tell them all along. Now it’s time to hold them to it, and encourage them to explore the available options. But it has to start by talking with diner owner Gene Wilkes—and doing it with transparency this time.
Mayor Moe has stated that the city-owned vacant lot at 312 Main Street will likely become a parking lot. I still say that site would be perfect to relocate the diner to—fully intact, and fully operational. As an official part of the Historic District, (and officially a historic property) it would become eligible for those preservation benefits we’ve talked about, which Preservation Maryland and Maryland Milestones will be all-too eager to assist with.
Wouldn’t the City be more interested in developing the lot at 118 Washington Blvd. themselves? Wouldn’t a parking lot there make more sense, given the proximity to the MARC train station?
These are all questions we need to consider over the next few days. I can’t begin to express how proud I am of the City’s Planning Commission for their unanimous decision, but we still need to call upon the Board of Appeals to uphold their recommendation. Please attend that meeting next Thursday, December 20th at 7PM at the Municipal Center.
I sincerely hope the City of Laurel is listening this time around. Remember, despite this initial victory, the Tastee Diner is still up for sale. But now there’s a real opportunity—and path—for the City to do the right thing and make it a legitimate part of Laurel’s Historic District.