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A local company hoping to open a medical marijuana growing and processing facility in York City took a small step toward that goal Monday night at a city planning commission meeting.

After attorneys for Five-Leaf Remedies led an examination of the group’s plans and goals, the commission unanimously recommended the approval of a variance to the city’s zoning ordinance that would allow a medical marijuana facility to operate inside city limits.

Because medical marijuana in Pennsylvania was only legalized in April 2016, many municipalities are trying find ways to incorporate new medical marijuana facilities into their zoning ordinances, said Christina Kauffman, public relations director for Five-Leaf Remedies.

With a variance, Five-Leaf Remedies could operate at the proposed site at 213 E. Poplar St., but the group must first convince the city's Zoning Hearing Board that the building cannot easily be used for another purpose within zoning regulations, Kauffman said.

The former tobacco and sewing warehouse is "perfect" for a medical marijuana facility, she said, but it is not suitable for a residential conversion, as it has 8-foot ceilings. The property also would  be unsuitable for a large industrial operation with scores of employees, Kauffman said.

Unlike most other cities in Pennsylvania, York City’s zoning ordinance does not have a “catch-all” phrase to provide for scenarios that are not explicitly expressed in the ordinance, said Frank Countess, attorney for Five-Leaf Remedies and CGA Law Firm.

“In all honesty, this use was not contemplated or fathomed or provided for clearly in the ordinance,” Countess told the commission.

Five-Leaf Remedies’ request for a variance moves on to the York City Zoning Hearing Board, which will consider the request during its meeting at 6:30 p.m. Thursday in York City Hall, 101 S. George St.

Imminent deadline: Kauffman said Five-Leaf Remedies wants to have zoning approval from York City before submitting its application to the state by Monday’s filing deadline.

The state Department of Health announced in December that it would grant up to two grower/processor  permits in each of the six regions throughout the state. It has been accepting applications for permits since Feb. 20.

York County is located in a 13-county region, which will be allocated up to four dispensary permits, one of which has been earmarked for York County.

Five-Leaf Remedies is among several groups in York County seeking a state-issued medical marijuana permit.

Hellam Township officials recently voted to approve Viridis Medicine LLC's proposal to build a grower/processor facility at 6287 Lincoln Highway, while a York Township couple has stated  intentions to open a medical marijuana growing and processing facility in Windsor Township.

Though only a few permits are up for grabs in this region, Kauffman said she believes Five-Leaf Remedies has set itself apart from other applicants by establishing itself as a benefit corporation — requiring the company to donate a portion of its proceeds to charity — and by having a diverse set of investors and team members, “all of whom really care about this city.”

Among those involved are local architect Frank Dittenhafer; Robin Rohrbaugh, president and CEO of the Community Progress Council; Bobby Simpson, CEO of the Crispus Attucks Association of York; and Janel Sacarellos, who, along with her husband, Themi Sacarellos, owns Round the Clock Diner, among other businesses.

“We feel that we have done everything that we can to distinguish ourselves among the applicants,” Kauffman said.

Grower/processor applications must include a $10,000 nonrefundable application fee and a $200,000 permit fee, which would be returned if the applicant was not awarded a permit.

State officials have stated that they are anticipating about 900 applications.

Security: Many of the commission’s questions about Five-Leaf’s request centered on security at the proposed East Poplar Street site, with Dr. Jonathan Spanos, Five-Leaf’s security and surveillance director addressing commissioners’ concerns.

Spanos, a former high-level director at the state Office of Homeland Security and owner of The Paddock on East Market Street in Springettsbury Township, said Five-Leaf is taking a “holistic approach” to securing the building by implementing more than 50 employee protocols, including controlled-access points and electronic identification for employees.

The building will be equipped with more than 100 surveillance cameras, and the York City police and fire departments will have 24-hour access to live footage to ensure emergency responders have complete situational awareness.

“The building is Fort Knox,” Spanos said.

Community support: Though York City resident Lynn Faircloth also had some concerns about the building’s security, she said she was “really excited” that Five-Leaf Remedies could help spur revitalization in the neighborhood and provide a substantial increase in the city’s tax base.

Kauffman said the East Poplar Street building’s value is currently assessed at $132,000, generating about $8,000 in taxes for the city, county and York City School District.

If Five-Leaf Remedies is granted a highly coveted license from the state, it will make a $2.5 million investment to renovate the building, she said. After that large investment, the property could generate $140,000 a year in taxes, she said.

Thomas Koons, 45, of West York, told the commission he was diagnosed with epilepsy in his 20s and said he is "very excited" by Five-Leaf’s plans to open in York City.

By talking to others with epilepsy who live in states that have already legalized medical or recreational marijuana, Koons said he has learned that access is the biggest issue.

“This would provide access for patients in this area, in this county,” Koons said. “I think that's extremely important.”

After the meeting, Koons said he has been able to hold his epilepsy to around 15 seizures a month through medication and a special diet, but he said the medication leaves him with "horrible migraines."

Koons said it is somewhat "gut-wrenching" to watch a company such as Five-Leaf Remedies work its way through the highly selective planning and application process because he knows their products could help him and others, but there are only a few licenses to go around.

“There’s going to be some people out there, some entities … that have their heads and hearts in the right place that are going to get turned down,” Koons said. “Hopefully, Five-Leaf isn’t one.”

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