City councilors clung closely to the language of a state question approved by voters in June that legalized medical marijuana in Oklahoma, adopting ordinances that fostered growth of the fledgling industry.
That policy helped the city sidestep legal challenges from industry advocates and sparked an enthusiastic response among entrepreneurs eager to enter the business. There are others in Muskogee who have resisted the change that accompanied legalization of medical marijuana, an initiative that garnered support of 57 percent of the voters who cast ballots in the June primary election.
The resistance in Muskogee mainly has come from church officials and congregants who have expressed concern that dispensaries could attract more crime in neighborhoods where vandalism and theft already cause problems. While State Question 788 provides for a 1,000-foot buffer between public or private school entrances and any retail marijuana establishment, there are no similar provisions for churches.
The voter-approved initiative petition prohibits municipalities from "unduly" changing or "restricting zoning laws" in a way that prevents "the opening of a retail marijuana establishment." A Muskogee ordinance that regulates business permits for medical marijuana-related businesses adheres to zoning provisions set forth in SQ 788.
The permitting structure has created some friction for Board of Adjustment members, who have fielded requests for variances to zoning regulations. They have approved most requests, but denied two requests primarily due to the proximity to churches.
One applicant whose request for a variance to the local commercial zoning restrictions was denied subsequently sought to rezone property that has been vacant for more than a year. The rezoning request has been recommended for approval because it would comply with a comprehensive plan and the city's future land use map.
City councilors approved by a 6-3 margin the request to rezone property in the 200 block of South 32nd Street as general commercial, which would allow a dispensary to open at that location. A vote for final approval was tabled this week until Tuesday to provide time for the applicant, the pastor at Boston Avenue Baptist Church and others to work out details for a privacy fence that could be erected between the commercial properties and a residential neighborhood where the church is located.
The Rev. Donnie Echols, pastor at Boston Avenue Baptist Church, said he understands medical marijuana is legal in Oklahoma. But he expressed ongoing concerns that the opening of a dispensary may exacerbate existing problems in the neighborhood that include vandalism and theft.
"We are having some issues already in this neighborhood, and we feel that rezoning of what was the original intent of this property would be even more detrimental to the safety of our congregation," Echols said during a public hearing earlier this week. "We are asking you to reconsider this and not rezone this until other safety measures are in place."
Paula Wilburn, a lawyer who represents the property owner seeking the zoning reclassification, said her client has experienced problems similar to those described by Echols. She said that is one reason why it is important to rezone the property and broaden the type of business that can occupy and operate at that location.
"I think, from the studies I have read on these types of businesses, it actually decreases crime because of all of the security and safety measures conducted in these types of businesses," Wilburn said. "Even the city, with their ordinances, they have certain things they require."
Ward III Councilor Ivory Vann said while his opposition to lax regulations for business that sell alcohol are widely known, he has no similar objections to medical marijuana. The only reservation he has with regard to medical marijuana is the failure to restrict the proximity of businesses to churches.
"I have nothing against marijuana — it's good to help people who are sick — that's OK, I agree," Vann said. "But when you come putting it by a church, it's like schools — they don’t put them by schools — I have a problem with that, every minister in Muskogee, Oklahoma, ought to have a problem with that."
Ward I Councilor Patrick Cale said while the church has legitimate concerns about public safety, rejecting reasonable requests to rezone property for legitimate business purposes raises a host of other issues. He did, however, express support for the parties' willingness to cooperate and find solutions that will facilitate ways to move forward.
"We can't start denying zoning requests because an ordinance isn't particularly favorable," Cale said. "I want to be supportive of the church and the church's family, (and) I naturally want to be supportive toward the applicant, (but) I have other concerns about denying applications for reasonable zonings — we just don’t need to be doing that."
Councilors were scheduled to vote for final approval on the rezoning request Monday, but the vote was tabled until Tuesday. Vann expressed suspicion the delay was motivated by concern the request would be denied due to the absence of councilors who voted to approve the request a week earlier during the Public Works Committee meeting.
"I know in my heart if it came to a vote tonight it would be a no vote," Vann said. "I have been a city councilor up here, and I have sat out there and watched other city councils and trust me, I know the game."