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Saturday, June 15, 2024

Harsh Words Exchanged Over Cannabis Plans

A sign advertising an earlier public auction of the land that would later become the site of a proposed indoor cannabis cultivation farm. Photo by Joe Phalon.

Tempers flared over a proposed indoor cannabis cultivation farm in Frelinghuysen during a May 15 township committee meeting.

Although the committee is not the town board that will decide the issue, a number of residents questioned the circumstances that led to One Faith Wellness, the applicant for the farm, purchasing the 30-acre parcel from the township during a public auction in 2023. 

The dust-up could provide a glimpse of the upcoming land use board meeting June 3, when the question is expected to be heard by the government body that will decide the issue. 

One Faith Wellness has proposed the cannabis facility on Route 94 on land that at its closest point, comes within about 1,000 feet of property owned by the Frelinghuysen board of education and about 2,000 feet from Frelinghuysen Elementary School building, according to tax maps. 

Several recent meetings of both the township committee and land use board have been punctuated with heated discussions. That includes the May 6 land use board meeting, which was moved to the recreation center on Lincoln Laurel Road in anticipation of a large crowd. 

The May meeting turned out to be a dry hole when One Faith requested a last-minute postponement to digest a township report it received the weekend before the meeting. The overflow crowd, some of whom observed the meeting from outside the windows, still heard several residents voice their opposition to the plan. 

The facility’s proximity to Frelinghuysen Township School was a concern at the land use board meeting as well as at the township committee meeting nine days later. 

Resident Brian James said during the committee meeting that he and others have collected 407 signatures on a petition opposing the farm. James also asked the committee to consider an ordinance prohibiting what he described as “industrial” cannabis farms within the township in the future. 

“We’re wondering, do you guys plan on doing anything about that for the future or can I expect maybe an industrial growth facility to pop up across the street from my house?” he asked. 

Resident Richard Stiefel asked why the zoning of the property had changed. 

The property, 30.68 acres located at 720 Route 94, just south of the county line, was rezoned in 2023 for commercial research, office and manufacturing. The property has 1,383 feet of frontage along Route 94 and is mostly farmland.

Frelinghuysen came into possession of the tract in February 2015 for $1 after a tax sale. Before the zoning change in November, it has been zoned as non-commercial.

The township sold the property at a public auction August 16, 2023, with a lone bid of $1.4 million. That bid was a half-million more than a bid from a May 10 auction. That deal fell through, however, when the buyer failed to make a 10% down payment by the end of day the auction was held.

The bidder from August 16 did make the required down payment that day, so the sale moved forward.

In 2021, in response to the state of New Jersey approving cannabis cultivation, the town committee passed a resolution prohibiting retail sales and limiting cultivation to land zoned research, offices and manufacturing. 

“What was your rationale?” Stiefel asked. 

Mayor Keith Ramos said the zoning change was made so the township could get the best return on the sale of the property. He added that cannabis was approved by voters in a statewide referendum. 

“I voted that way because the town needs ratables,” Ramos said. “I have been very transparent in what I believe.”

The meeting briefly lurched into several simultaneous shouting matches between committee members and residents as well as some members of the public shouting at each other. 

The next round tentatively will take place at the June 3 land use board meeting, where testimony on the proposal is expected. The agenda for the meeting, however, is not set until several days before the 7 p.m. meeting, which like the May meeting, is likely to be moved from town hall to the recreation center. Check the Frelinghuysen Township website at frelinghuysen-nj.us in the days and hours leading up to the meeting. 

Joe Phalon
Joe Phalon, Contributing Writer
Contributing Writer

Joe was lured out of retirement by the opportunity to be a part of the Ridge View Echo. During a decades-long career in publishing and journalism, he has covered government on many levels from local school boards to the United States Supreme Court.

Along the way, Joe has worked at American Lawyer Magazine, The National Law Journal and The Record among other publications, and as the Press Officer of Columbia Law School. His work has been recognized with several first place awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the New Jersey Press Association.

Being part of the Ridge View Echo brings Joe back to his roots and the kind of news coverage he loves: Telling the stories of people and local communities as well as keeping an eye on how their money is spent by their government officials.

Joe lives in Blairstown with his wife Rose, the founder of Quilting for a Cause, and their two wiener dogs. He is an artist in his spare time.