Breckeneridge Town Council again looks to voters for marijuana-on-Main question
Tourists strolled down Breckenridge’s Main Street on a cool, partly cloudy Wednesday afternoon.
A white dusting of snow had settled in the early morning hours on the western alpine peaks looking over the town. As visitors wandered, mainly in pairs, through downtown, most didn’t even notice the wooden sign reading “Breckenridge Cannabis Club” swinging slowly in the mild breeze in front of a yellow and white Victorian-style home. And even fewer tourists knew about the fierce debate raging in town regarding the innocuous-looking business.
A retired couple from Manchester, Connecticut, were making their second visit to Breckenridge. But this was the first time they’d noticed the only retail marijuana shop located downtown. And although they didn’t agree with the idea of legalized marijuana, they said the store did nothing to shake their image of the family-friendly destination.
“I don’t agree with the law that made it legal,” Bill Schwarz said. “But we don’t think that it runs down the neighborhood.”
Although the answer to the question was easy to them as visitors, it’s been a much more difficult and divisive issue when posed to locals and second-home owners of the town known as “the Kingdom.”
Real-life drama unfolded the day before on the issue in the council chambers at Breckenridge City Hall. In a debate that has simmered all summer, the council once again changed its mind on how to answer the question of whether retail marijuana shops should be allowed in the downtown district.
In its latest reversal, the council now appears ready to put the question back to the people.
“If we don’t go to the voters soon they are going to get angry,” said Councilman Gary Gallagher. “It keeps festering. This is crazy. We are going to become the new ‘As the World Turns’ — we’ll be ‘As the Town Turns.’”
Befitting Gallagher’s comments was the documentary film crew sliding up and down the chamber aisles, shooting from different angles. The crew has been following the first year of legalization in Breckenridge and has become a staple presence at the twice-a-month meetings.
In the end, the majority of the council ultimately agreed with Gallagher
“My preference would be to step back and study it more,” said Councilman Ben Brewer. “But our difficulty is how divisive this issue is … In this climate I think we do need voter guidance.”
And Councilwoman Elisabeth Lawrence supported taking it to the voters mainly due to the sometimes hostile climate surrounding the issue. Lawrence and three other council members have faced intense criticism from some in the community for their support of allowing BCC to continue operations at the Main Street location it’s occupied for five years.
“I think at this point I have to go with a vote just to protect my job,” she said.
The issue has been up and down for the past year. Late last year, the council approved an ordinance forbidding any retail pot shops in the downtown overlay district.
After April elections, the makeup of the council changed, and the issue was revisited in the early summer. A straw vote revealed a slim majority, 4-3, was in favor of allowing retail marijuana to operate downtown under certain restrictions. Initially, the council intended to handle the ordinance.
It later decided to put the issue up for vote in the November election. After the town attorney showed them what the ordinance would look like on the ballot, council members decided against it due to the complicated and convoluted legal language.
So once again they were going to hammer out the ordinance themselves. At the Aug. 26 meeting they began working on several of the restrictions to go with the ordinance. But in the two weeks since, the issue continued to heat up around town, culminating with an online petition started by a local business owner. In about a week it had more than 800 electronic signatures from locals, visitors and second-home owners who didn’t want marijuana on Main.
On Tuesday, Sept. 9, the council announced its intention to send the issue back to the voters.
Since it’s too late to place a question on the November ballot, the council will have to call a special election, the earliest possible date being Dec. 9. But the election is only advisory. Once the council canvases the votes, it will then decide whether to pass an ordinance allowing marijuana on Main.
“We’ve floundered,” said Councilman Mark Burke of the flip-flopping. “When leadership flounders, the community flounders. But I have faith in our citizens, and I think they will help us solve this.”
“If the majority votes no, the council just leaves everything alone and BCC will have to be out of their Main Street location by Feb. 2, 2015,” said town attorney Tim Berry. “But if they vote yes, the council will still have to finalize the ordinance.”
Brian Rogers, general manager at Breckenridge Cannabis Clubs, had previously supported taking the issue to the voters. But that was if the vote had been held during the general election in November, when turnout would be higher. He had an issue with the date of the proposed special election in early to mid-December.
“My only problem is with the date of the special election,” Rogers said. “All I’m asking is if you’re going to go to the people it’s best to do it during the general election when you get higher voter turnout.”
At the Sept. 23 meeting, council expects to vote on taking the issue to the public in the form of an advisory referendum.
THE RIGHT TO RECUSE
At the Aug. 26 meeting, Councilwoman Wendy Wolfe recused herself from discussing the marijuana-on-Main issue.
She cited a possible conflict of interest. Her husband, Jack Wolfe, a commercial real estate broker in Breckenridge, was approached in mid-August by a current Breckenridge marijuana license holder interested in moving to a downtown location.
According to Berry, if a council member or his or her immediate family stands to make financial gains directly from council action, it’s a conflict of interest. And according to the town ethics policy, it’s up to the other council members to determine whether a conflict is real.
But on Tuesday, in order to re-enter the discussion, Jack Wolfe submitted a written statement saying he would refrain from any real estate transactions involving the marijuana industry downtown until after the issue has been settled by the council.
“This is one of the most important issues Wendy will work on this term,” Jack Wolfe told the council. “We talked about this as a family, and I’m doing this so she can be part of this important conversation.”
Still, even after the agreement by Jack Wolfe, the council was divided on what Wendy Wolfe would and would not be allowed to discuss on the issue.
“I have mixed feelings,” Lawrence said. “This is a very muddy situation. And the irony of all this is that Wendy is the most opposed to (marijuana on Main), yet she stands to gain the most financially if it is passed.”
After much discussion, the council and town attorney decided which topics Wendy Wolfe could and couldn’t participate in regarding the marijuana ordinance.
“There are two different issues,” said Kim Dykstra-DiLallo, director of communications for the town of Breckenridge. “If the discussion is very general, such as yes or no, she’s allowed to be part of the conversation.
“But when it gets down to specific provisions of the ordinance, such as how many feet the businesses must be apart, the number per block, then she will recuse herself.”
Still, Dykstra-DiLallo noted, it’s up to the council to determine on an individual basis the conversations from which Wendy Wolfe must recuse herself because of a possible conflict.
Council applauded the Wolfes for their transparency on the matter.
“I think you are doing a really stand-up thing,” Gallagher said. “I think it is commendable.”
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