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UPDATE: State Agencies Agree: Cannabis Can Be Grown on Preserved Farms; New Info Added

Christopher South
Carol Rea Flynn telling the Cape May County Agriculture Development Board of plans to lease an acre of Rea farmland to Shore House Canna to grow cannabis.

By Christopher South

WEST CAPE MAY – Two state agencies initially having different stances on whether cannabis can be grown on preserved farmland in New Jersey are now in agreement — cannabis is permitted agricultural produce.

The State Agriculture Development Committee, which according to its website “leads in the preservation of New Jersey’s farmland and promotes innovative approaches to maintaining the viability of agriculture,” originally said yes.

On Feb. 28, Brian Smith, senior counsel with the committee, directed the Herald to its frequently asked questions on the website, where it says, “The State Agriculture Development Committee considers cannabis an agricultural crop and that growing cannabis on a preserved farm is permitted under the deed of easement.”

On Wednesday, March 6, a week after the committee’s response, Darrah Pilieri, public information officer with the state Cannabis Regulatory Commission, which originally said no on the cannabis growing question, affirmed the agriculture committee’s position.

Pilieri said, “The New Jersey State Agriculture Development Committee has determined that it considers cannabis an agricultural crop and that growing cannabis on a preserved farm is permitted.”

Pilieri explained the delay in her agency’s response to the Herald’s question, saying, “We have an internal review process that can take some time, and we do respond as soon as possible.”

The then-differing stances of the two state agencies came up after the Feb. 22 meeting of the Cape May County Agriculture Development Board, when about 20 West Cape May residents turned out to speak against plans to grow cannabis on a portion of the Rea Farm, a preserved farmland property. County Counsel Jeffrey Lindsay said that night that the State Agriculture Development Committee considered cannabis an agricultural product and therefore it could be grown on a preserved farm.

The State Agriculture Development Committee website says, “The growing of cannabis on a preserved farm, whether grown outdoors and/or indoors, must still comply with applicable (Cannabis Regulatory Commission) regulations.”

However, according to information provided to resident Thomas Myers by the Cannabis Regulatory Commission on Feb. 26, “Under current law, medicinal or recreational cannabis cannot be planted, propagated, cultivated, grown, harvested, processed, or sold on property assessed under the New Jersey Farmland Assessment Act of 1964.” The Rea farm is such a property.

Carol Rea Flynn, the daughter of longtime West Cape May farmer Les Rea, appeared before the county Agriculture Development Board Feb. 22 to tell them of the farm’s intention to lease a portion of the property, located on Stevens Street at Bayshore Road, to Shore House Canna, which would grow cannabis there for the store. Lindsay told the board that Rea Flynn’s appearance was a “courtesy review.” He said the county board need not take action, as there was no application before the board.

Rea Flynn told the board that Shore House Canna asked about leasing a portion of the farm, and an agreement was reached, adding, “We said OK, as long as it is OK with the town.”

According to residents, the matter was going to be discussed at the Feb. 28 West Cape May Board of Commissioners meeting, but the discussion was removed from the agenda. A phone call to Mayor Carol Sabo seeking to clarify the board’s position was not immediately returned.

Rea Flynn told the county board Feb. 22 that Shore House Canna would like to grow on about an acre, which she said was not “large scale.”

But some of the residents at the meeting objected to cannabis cultivation on the farm, in part over concern for the neighboring wetlands. Resident Jerry Alloco said they were concerned about stormwater runoff that could carry pesticides, fertilizer or other chemicals into the wetlands.

Jerry Alloco of West Cape May speaking to the county Agriculture Development Board Feb. 22, questioning a decision by the Rea Farm to lease land for cannabis cultivation. Photo Credit: Christopher South

Alloco claimed that statutes governing cannabis cultivation require it to be grown in a greenhouse with appropriate ventilation. He said the statutes require a 7-foot fence around the operation and a minimum of 5 acres of land. The Rea property is approximately 95 acres.

Shore House Canna CEO David Christian said the cannabis plants are not going to be accessible to the public. He said there is going to be a 7-foot fence around the perimeter of the cultivation area, as well as security cameras. In addition, he said, the crop is only valuable when it flowers, which is only four weeks out of the year.

Another concern he expressed was over what he called a “pungent” aroma that can be smelled for a mile away from cannabis processing areas.

Alloco said after the meeting that he believed cannabis sales and cultivation would change the character of the community.

Resident Mary Clark said she is concerned about the smell that will be produced by approximately 2,000 plants on an acre of farmland.

According to jointlybetter.com, certain strains of cannabis are more likely to produce a strong scent than others: “Strong, smelly weed can have a range of scents such as: ammonia, citrus, cheese, diesel, earth/dirt, hops/beer, lemon, musk, pepper, pine or skunk.”

Clark, the owner of a business in Cape May, said she is concerned that the smell from processing will be worse than what the plants produce, and she is worried about the effect on real estate values.

“Real estate agents will have to disclose the existence of a nearby cannabis farm,” she said.

Regarding property values, Christian provided an article on a survey conducted by the Rutgers New Jersey State Policy Lab, published in September 2022. The survey results indicated that in the short term there was actually an increase in property values in towns where cannabis retail facilities had been established. The article pointed out that there were no mid-term or long-term results. Shore House Canna founder and owner Tom Nuscis said neighboring businesses have seen an uptick in business since they opened their doors.

Clark is also concerned about children and youth being negatively impacted by the presence of cannabis growing in the community.

Claudia Von Savage believes having a retail cannabis license in the borough is a problem.

“West Cape May officials made a tremendous mistake in originally allowing a marijuana dispensary to operate in our small town, as it sends a terrible message to our children that drug use is benign and acceptable,” she said.

Von Savage said allowing the cannabis business to expand its presence in the community “is not only doubling down on a bad decision, but more importantly, it would also be a complete sellout of our youth.” She cited unnamed studies linking cannabis use to various problems and to progression to other drug use.

Christian and Nuscis said they are definitely not targeting children.

“We are not marketing to kids – that is the last thing we want to do,” Christian said.

He added that the website requires a visitor to state that they are over the age of 21 and for anyone who is not, they will have to lie to get to the site.

Christian and Nuscis said parents concerned about their children being affected by the presence of cannabis in their community should be educating their children about cannabis products, as they would about responsible alcohol use.

Von Savage said Shore House Canna is targeting the younger generation via its website, and has an effect on youth by promoting the perception that cannabis is harmless and commonplace. Clark said the website depicts surfers and young people at the beach. These sentiment were echoed by Chad DeSatnick, who said as a father he is concerned that children are being desensitized to the presence of cannabis in the community.

Resident Barry Bittenmaster, who retired after a career in law enforcement and corporate security, feels there are inherent risks to the community and believes a formal risk assessment needs to be done. He said that at a legal cannabis facility in Egg Harbor Township, people were selling illegal cannabis in the parking lot, saying their product was less expensive because they did not charge tax.

Bittenmaster said there have been incidents of people wearing Drug Enforcement Administration jackets approaching a cannabis retailer armed with fake warrants. He also believes the business is susceptible to robbery by customers or employees.

“When you have a lot of cash and a desirable product you are subject to robbery, externally and internally,” he said.

Cape May Police Chief Dekon Fashaw, whose department patrols West Cape May as part of a shared services agreement, said there has been no increase in crime related to the opening of Shore House Canna on Oct. 28, 2023.

Nuscis said some cannabis facilities in the north have been targeted for robbery, but the robbers were after the cash. He said he feels some in the community are mischaracterizing the business and industry as a whole.

“Look, we don’t want to be looking like the bad guy. We are not a corner drug guy,” Nuscis said. “We are reinvesting in the community. A significant portion of the West Cape May budget is coming from that reinvestment. We are looking to make something safe and unique in the cannabis industry, which is being misrepresented by a few people in the community.”

According to Nuscis, Shore House Canna’s number one selling product is a sleep aid, followed by an aid for arthritis.

“Do people want the 50-year-old mother going around the streets looking for marijuana so she can sleep?” Nuscis asked.

Also at the Feb. 22 meeting, resident Roger Sullivan asked if the establishment of an area for cultivating cannabis would create a precedent allowing others to begin such an operation. Lindsay said there would be no precedent set by the board because the board was taking no action on the matter.

Another resident, Ben Clark, said the cultivation was going to be 150 feet from his front door and 50 feet from a school bus stop. He said his understanding was that open growing of cannabis was not allowed, and it must be 1,000 feet from any property line. Clark said the growing could be moved to accommodate the 1,000-foot requirement.

Rea Flynn responded that the farm’s proposal meets all requirements.

Contact the author, Christopher South, at csouth@cmcherald.com or 609-886-8600, ext. 128.

Reporter

Christopher South is a reporter for the Cape May County Herald.

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