While a number of people argued for and against River Forest allowing recreational cannabis sales during the village board’s Dec. 9 meeting, whether the board would allow it was never in question. It was more of a matter of what kind of rules trustees would impose.

In the end, the trustees decided against larger distance restrictions favored by the River Forest Zoning Board of Appeals, while adding some restrictions of its own. 

Under the regulations that were ultimately approved, dispensaries must be located at least 100 feet from schools, churches, parks and daycare centers. The state law requires at least 1,500 feet between dispensaries. 

Dispensaries are also limited to commercial areas and must apply for special use permits. Finally, their operating hours are limited to no earlier than 10 a.m. and no later than 7 p.m.

Effective Jan. 1, 2020, Illinois residents will be able to legally purchase recreational marijuana and smoke it in their homes. While the state law doesn’t allow municipalities to prohibit private usage, it does allow them to either ban cannabis dispensaries altogether or regulate where they may be located, how long they may operate and impose a special sales tax.

Village staff proposed prohibiting dispensaries within 100 feet of a “sensitive use” — a school or a church — mirroring the existing liquor license regulations. Staff also recommended restricting dispensaries to commercial districts as special use, which would allow the village board to consider each application on a case-by-case basis and impose certain additional conditions, if necessary. 

In October, the River Forest Zoning Board of Appeals recommended increasing minimum distance from sensitive to 1,000 feet, and doubling the minimum distance from other dispensaries to 3,000 feet. 

The ZBA also recommended restricting operating hours to between 10 a.m. and 7 p.m., and proposed capping the number of dispensaries allowed in the village at one.

Lisa Scheiner, the village’s assistant administrator, said the ZBA’s restrictions would have made the Lake Street corridor completely off-limits. They also would have reduced the number of potential sites on North Avenue by half and removed properties along Madison Street west of Park Avenue. 

By adopting staff’s distance restrictions, only the Harlem Avenue commercial corridor would be off-limits due to proximity to the medical dispensary on Lake Street in Oak Park.  

Resident Nate Mellman urged the board opt out altogether, arguing that it would place strain on traffic, increase the number of police complaints and lead to loitering around dispensaries. He also argued that it would hurt property values and hurt residents’ employment prospects. 

Mary Ann Zeh, another resident, said that, as a pharmacist, she was worried about cannabis’ effects.

“It’s a drug, and it’s not some innocuous thing,” she said. “And it’s definitely a more potent form [being sold at] the shops.”

Scheiner told the board that she consulted with Police Chief James O’Shea about the impact on police calls, and they found that, in the communities that had medical dispensaries, the impact was negligible. 

The chief himself said that there were still impacts that may not become apparent until the legalization takes effect, specifically mentioning that he had no idea whether that would have any effect on illegal drug sales. 

And while he did consult with his counterparts in other states where cannabis is legal, because of the difference in laws, he felt that it wasn’t an “apples to apples” comparison.

When asked to respond to concerns about loitering, Village Attorney Greg Smith told the board that state law wouldn’t allow smoking cannabis outside a dispensary. 

O’Shea said that residents who otherwise loiter can be charged with disorderly conduct if they don’t heed verbal warnings. 

Trustee Thomas Cargie said he had no problem with allowing dispensaries, noting that effects of drinking can be more dangerous than the effects of using cannabis, and River Forest already allows the former. 

He also argued that ZBA recommendations for minimum distances were too draconian and suggested going with the village staff’s original suggestions. 

Trustee Katie Brennan said she was trying to balance the estimated $262,000 in sales tax revenue dispensaries would bring in with safety concerns. And she suggested including parks, playgrounds and daycare service centers added as “sensitive uses.”

The staff ran through several scenarios, looking at how changing minimum distances and adding more sensitive uses would affect availability. As noted during the discussion, daycare homes for adults with disabilities are licensed by the State of Illinois and can open without village’s say-so. 

While an opening of a new daycare homes wouldn’t affect the dispensaries that are already there, it would have a domino effect on any dispensaries that open afterwards.

Trustees agreed to add parks and daycare centers (but not daycare homes) as sensitive uses and to go with ZBA’s recommendation for operating hours. Trustees did not place a cap on the number of dispensaries that can open.

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Igor Studenkov

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Growing Community Media newspapers in 2012, then from 2015...