The group that gathered in a church basement last week only recently had caught wind of it: Their backyard might soon become home to one of just two marijuana-growing facilities allowed in southeastern Pennsylvania. And some were feeling an angst that was playing catch-up with a bureaucratic process racing ahead of them.
“Will pot be legal in Pennsylvania someday soon?” Brendan McPhillips, a real estate professional and father of two girls, asked Flyers sports-empire scion Lindy Snider, who a month earlier had received the blessings of other neighbors in the same Northeast Philadelphia church hall for plans to possibly build a medical-marijuana facility in their neighborhood, near the Bucks County border.
“Yes,” interjected a neighbor at the monthly meeting of Parkwood Civic Association, where Snider’s plans also came up for discussion at a previous meeting.
“Yes,” said another.
"Probably,” added a third.
“If you owned it the day pot becomes legal in Pennsylvania, would you say, ‘I’d like to sell it from here?’ ” McPhillips again asked Snider, suggesting a future operator might want to increase profits by adding a smoking lounge and retail shop near the rowhouse enclave.
“It’s not going to happen on my watch,” Snider replied.
The taut exchange encapsulated a yes-maybe-no process of a neighborhood stumbling to keep up with developments as the state implements its groundbreaking medical-marijuana law at near-breakneck speed.
McPhillips had missed Snider's presentation in February, convened as a courtesy: Nowhere in the law was community consent required. But word of her appearance had spread unevenly through social media just a few days before the February meeting. Now, a month later, McPhillips was there with sharp questions.
It’s one thing to have a medical-pot-growing plant just a short walk from a church, ball fields, and a walking trail near the rowhouse enclave, he said. But what if the state makes marijuana legal for recreational use? Could Parkwood become a retail-pot playground?
We have your word today, he said, but what if someone else owns the business by then?
“If I should ever sell this business, the next owner will have to go through the same [state] vetting process,” Snider said, referring to extensive paperwork and background checks she recently completed in vying for the first licenses that have yet to be awarded.
Such exchanges between residents and prospective marijuana entrepreneurs have been the anomaly, at least in Philadelphia, as a crush of investors is chasing 12 licenses to open grower facilities across the state and permits allowing up to 81 prescription-doling dispensaries.
The Department of Health only in late December announced it would start accepting applications for medical-pot permits in February. That meant would-be bidders had to scramble to secure rights to land, financing, and letters of local zoning compliance. This left little time for communities to learn what might be afoot in their neighborhoods.
The winners won’t be known for months, but the commonwealth has moved quickly to implement the law after Democratic Gov. Wolf signed it in April, with backing by Republicans.
Applications were accepted over a one-month period that ended March 20. Snider was not alone in meeting with residents in recent weeks as a goodwill gesture, aimed ultimately at helping win over state regulators.
But overall, the push-back from residents has been unimpressive, at least so far, said Frank Iannuzzi, legislative director for Councilman Derek Green, who sponsored a city medical-pot zoning ordinance that, in and of itself, was enacted with unusual alacrity just before Christmas.
“There has been a shocking lack of response from residents,” he said. “It’s an extreme manifestation of a problem we sometimes have in government. Proposals filter out when they get passed -- but people don’t really get hot about them until they start to see effects on the ground.”
Snider’s application for a grower facility in Parkwood and up to three dispensaries in as many as three counties in the region is among the roughly 900 expected to have been submitted statewide by the end of last week.
Neither the state nor the new city zoning ordinance require that would-be marijuana merchants or growers secure community approval -- only that a grower facility be on property zoned industrial and that dispensaries be on commercially zoned land.
Snider has an option to buy an industrial-zoned, undeveloped wooded parcel from the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. for a planned 125,000-square-foot growing and processing facility.
Parkwood residents who attended Snider's presentation in February were convinced that it would be a good addition. They voted resoundingly to support the plan and drafted a letter of support.
But within hours of the vote, word spread to other neighbors, sparking surprise and confusion. McPhillips built a website, nopotplant.org, and papered the neighborhood with leaflets.
On Wednesday night, he and a smattering of others questioned Snider and her spokesman, Kevin Feeley. Their exchange came after a different conversation altogether had ended -- one about an apparent surge in drug use in the community.
Neighbors complained about increasingly visible signs of addiction and alcohol use. In the wee hours of the morning, griped civic group vice president John Del Ricci, the local Wawa was full of “walking zombies.”
From that, the civic group president handed the floor to residents and Snider.
If pot becomes legal for recreation, McPhillips warned, residents might be less happy about having a pot facility so close to them.
“If today somebody said I’m also going to put a 1,500-square-foot retail store and smoking lounge there, would we approve of that?” McPhillips asked.
“No,” said voices from the crowd.
The rush to submit applications mirrored an overall race to push the law into on-the-ground reality.
Green introduced Philadelphia's medical-pot zoning ordinance on Oct. 20. A month later came a public hearing. About a week after that, Council unanimously passed the bill. And on Dec. 20, Mayor Kenney signed it into law. An unusually speedy birth.
The next day, state Secretary of Health Karen Murphy announced the state would make permit applications available in late January.
Philadelphia requires that dispensaries be at least 500 feet from schools, day care centers, and similar facilities, compared with a 1,000-foot state-mandated setback. Gov. Wolf approved the local ordinance in a letter two weeks ago.
Civic group president Matt Darragh said he welcomed the debate and appreciated Snider's willingness to come back but conceded that no one has a road map for this kind of new neighbor.
"Obviously," Darragh said, "this is new territory for everybody."
If Snider's group doesn't win a license, he added, the whole thing is moot. "But at this point," Darragh said, "it’s a waiting game."
For complete cannabis coverage, go to philly.com/cannabis.