“The People Have Spoken.”

Only minutes into the long-awaited Board of Appeals hearing last night at the Laurel Municipal Center, there was a major surprise when an attorney for Pure Hana Synergy—the applicant attempting to purchase the Tastee Diner—addressed the committee in the opening moments.

Photo: John Mewshaw

“The people have spoken, and we have heard. For that reason and out of respect for the community’s wishes, we have decided to withdraw the special exception application.”

Richard K. Reed, attorney for Pure Hana Synergy

And just like that, the meeting was adjourned. I’m very happy to report that the legendary Tastee Diner will not be turning into a medical marijuana dispensary, thanks largely in part to those who signed the petition and supported the efforts to save this rare and special building.

While our community activism certainly played a big role in this result, those of us rallying to “save the diner” actually shouldn’t get all the credit (or the blame, depending which side of the fence you were on) for the Pure Hana deal falling through. It ultimately came down to the City of Laurel’s own Municipal Code, which includes strict criteria for medical marijuana dispensaries—more than one of which should have disqualified Pure Hana from ever applying for the Tastee Diner location in the first place.

First, there was the issue of the “one mile rule” in relation to any other medical marijuana dispensary.

This rule was initially the focus of some creative interpretation, as the Diner site is well within one mile of Revolution ReLEAF, the dispensary just north on Route 1 at the former Sam & Elsie’s bar. Pure Hana proponents likely would have argued that because Revolution ReLEAF is located outside of the 21st District in Howard County, the one-mile rule doesn’t apply—even though the COMAR code clearly says that “the premises may not be located within one-mile of any other licensed premises.” It doesn’t specify District limits.

Compounding the problem for Pure Hana was the recent approval of another dispensary just barely* (*depending on how one measures it) one mile south at the Tower Plaza shopping center on Route 1 at Cherry Lane. Department of Economic and Community Development staffers claimed that “It’s very close, but they just meet (the one-mile requirement).”

But again, the code seems open to interpretation. How exactly is the distance measured—is it door to door, or is it from property edge to property edge? The distance between the Diner’s location and that of this new dispensary set to open soon at Tower Plaza could also easily have been challenged.

When the Planning Commission voted unanimously to recommend denial of Pure Hana’s application on December 11th, the simple proximity to these existing dispensaries was the real reason. To loud applause that night, chairman Rick Wilson had explained, “I strongly believe that we have adequate coverage of medical marijuana.”

But it’s actually another rule in the Municipal Code that likely would have nullified this deal for good.

Because he didn’t have the opportunity to speak at last night’s hearing after all, I asked City Council member Carl DeWalt if I could publish the text of what he’d planned to say. With his permission, here it is:

Good evening. My name is Carl DeWalt. I retired from 22 years with the Laurel Police Department and proudly represent the Ward 1 Citizens of Laurel on the City Council.
 
I am here tonight to urge the Board of Appeals to uphold the decision of the Laurel Planning Commission to not recommend approval of the application of Pure Hana, also known as SH Realty Holdings LLC, to operate a medical cannabis dispensary.
 
While I believe that the Tastee Diner has important historical value and should be preserved, that is not the reason I am here tonight.
 
Two reasons lead to the conclusion that not only was the Planning Commission correct in its recommendation, but the Pure Hana application should not have proceeded to this point at all.
 
First.  We have enough marijuana dispensaries.

As the Planning Commission noted, Laurel already has an approved Medical Marijuana Dispensary set to open very shortly.

• Distance is very close to the 1-mile mark, and if one uses the traditional legal definition of premises, the case can be made that the Blue Pharma company dispensary is less than a mile –4905 feet property line to property line.

• There is a dispensary in Howard County—Revolution ReLEAF.  The Laurel Code states: “The premises may be not located within one-mile of any other licensed premises of a licensed dispensary of Medical Cannabis.”

This dispensary is less than a mile —.07 miles—from the proposed dispensary, and while some may say the fact that it is in another jurisdiction means any restrictions don’t apply, I would disagree. A mile is a mile, and the law does NOT state “within a mile…within the Laurel City limits.”

• Do we really need 3 dispensaries in a 1.8-mile radius?

• There is another dispensary operating on Rt 198, in Burtonsville.

• How many medical dispensaries do we need?

• How many do we need in the Laurel City limits?

• When the City passed its amendment to the unified code, was their intention to make Laurel a marijuana mecca?  I don’t think so. I hope not. And I hope you don’t think so either.
 
My second, and more important point addresses the fact that this application should never have been allowed to proceed this far.

• WHY. The Tastee Diner location disqualifies it from being a medical marijuana dispensary.

The Laurel amendments to the special exceptions in the unified code state:
Premises shall not be located within 1000 feet of a lot line of a public or private school, or real property owned by the Prince George’s county Board of Education or house of worship.
 
I draw your attention to the Prayer Tower Bible Way Apostolic Faith Church, 12 2nd St, Laurel, MD 20707.

1. Image of sign and Church entrance. This well-established faith community is less than 1,000 feet from the Tastee Diner. As the crow files, its 668 feet door to door. Less if you consider it lot line to lot line—which is the proper measurement.

Walking along established roads it is 747 feet. 

2. How do I know these figures? Google Maps Distance feature, P.G. County’s own tool, P.G. Atlas, a laser Bushnell range finder and a surveyor measuring wheel. Under any measurement, the distance between Tastee Diner and the Prayer Tower Bible Way Apostolic Faith Church is less than 1000 feet.

3. According to the City’s own ordinance, which says a dispensary must be 1,000 feet from a house of worship, this application does not qualify for approval.
 
On the basis of both these factors I ask you to uphold the Planning Board’s recommendation.

Thank you.

Carl DeWalt

I suspect that no one—from either the Pure Hana camp or within the City of Laurel’s Department of Economic and Community Development—ever noticed that there is, in fact, a church less than 1,000 feet from the Tastee Diner.

Perhaps because it isn’t in what we’d consider a traditional church structure, it was simply overlooked. But there it is—in the small strip mall at the opposite end of Dottie’s Trophies.

Photos: Carl DeWalt

Between the sheer number of other dispensaries in the area, the questionable distance between dispensaries both north and south of the Diner, and now the realization that there’s an established church less than 700 feet away, it’s now clear that this location was just never meant to be a medical marijuana dispensary.

While I think we’d all love to know how the Board of Appeals would have voted, it’s probably best for the City of Laurel that they didn’t have to. Because had they somehow decided to overturn the Planning Commission’s recommendation—especially in light of these facts—the optics would have been quite bad.

For the record, I don’t suspect that they would have done that. But I both admire and respect Pure Hana’s decision to withdraw their application.

While the immediate threat has been eliminated, the Diner’s future is still very much in jeopardy, however. Owner Gene Wilkes was understandably disappointed in the deal falling through, and remains eager—perhaps more so than ever—to sell the property. After last night’s meeting adjourned, he hinted at considering simply “closing it down and boarding it up.” Given the resurgence of business since news of the potential sale first broke, let’s hope that Mr. Wilkes doesn’t make any such rash decisions. But that’s something that we, as supporters of the Diner, need to help with—please continue to frequent the Diner and encourage others to do so as well.

Saturday’s “Diner Appreciation Day” saw a fantastic outpouring of support—support that can be sustained. People who may have taken the Diner for granted over the years are thankfully rediscovering its appeal, and they’re spreading the word; and those who are experiencing it for the very first time are quickly hooked on its authenticity, and its affordability

It’s entirely fitting that on the very day that the dispensary drama would be resolved, the latest issue of the Laurel Leader came out with this as the cover story.

Now is the time for the City of Laurel to work with Mr. Wilkes on a way to purchase the Diner for the City’s Historic District. Mayor Craig Moe has already gone on the record, asking that Laurel be given the right of first refusal for any future sale—well, that availability is here. And with the help of state and county preservation grants, crowdfunding, and willing investors, it can be done—and the long term benefits would be immeasurable.

In the meantime, please continue to to support the Tastee Diner and its hardworking staff. Packing that parking lot on a regular basis is the surest way to keep the City’s attention… and more importantly, to keep the Diner open. 

For more on this story:

Washington Post coverage

Laurel Leader coverage

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One thought on ““The People Have Spoken.”

  1. Virginia says:

    Well done, Richard! Yes, there were many factors that contributed to the Diner’s temporary stay, but I think that if you hadn’t brought this to the public’s attention and kept it there, the Diner would have disappeared one way or another. I don’t think the council would have come up with the idea of preserving or moving the Diner without your dogged push. Now it may be an eventual reality!
    Well Done!

    Virginia Hockeimer
    Philadelphia

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