Speakers support rezoning armory for hemp processing at public hearing

© 2018-The Record Delta

BUCKHANNON — The city’s planning commission listened to feedback from stakeholders and the public, but made no decision concerning the rezoning of the old armory building on Route 20 Wednesday night during a public hearing at city hall.

The purpose of the hearing was to consider a request from bioRemedies, MD to reclassify the old armory property, 1 Armory Road, on Route 20. The building is currently dually classified as both an industrial zone and a C-2 highway commercial zone, and bioRemedies has asked to have it reclassified to a solely industrial zone in accordance with the city’s zoning ordinance, Ordinance No. 244.

The Baltimore, Md.-based business says it produces pharmaceutical grade products containing hemp-derived cannabidiol — commonly known as CBD — found in the cannabis plant. Cannabidiol is just one of 80-some cannabinoids in the cannabis plant, and it differs from marijuana, according to company officials, because it contains less than 0.3 percent of THC, the psychoactive component of marijuana.

The public hearing was prompted by a letter from Dr. John Powers, chief executive officer of bioRemedies, to the planning commission and city in April. The letter stated that the reclassification would enable the business to engage in indoor and outdoor agricultural greenhouse grows, process pharmaceutical botanical extractions, engage in scientific laboratory testing, establish retail and office space and more.

At Wednesday’s meeting, city zoning officer Vincent Smith explained that the back one-third of the armory is already classified as in the industrial zone, and bioRemedies is asking to have the front two-thirds of the building also included in the same zone. 

“The proposed [change] is to go exactly to the front of their building, which would give us 133 feet from Route 20,” Smith said, pointing to a map of how the area is currently zoned. “That’s all we’re doing is bringing the entire building into I (industrial zone).”

City attorney Tom O’Neill was also on hand to offer some legal advice to the commission. O’Neill said the limit of the commission’s authority is to either recommend that Buckhannon City Council accept or reject the rezoning proposal, and council will ultimately have the final say via voting on an ordinance that would potentially effect the change.

“In coming to a conclusion as to what your recommendation will be, I would urge you to consider the zoning ordinance and the permitted uses under the proposed change to the zone, and limit it to that, because the last thing that we want to do is engage in any act that could be considered arbitrary and capricious,” O’Neill said. “We don’t know what the exact use of the property will be until there’s an application for a business license, and there has not been one. We can’t determine whether or not the proposed use is permitted under C-2 or I until there is [an application] for a business license filed.”

(The area must be rezoned before bioRemedies can apply for a business license from the city, O’Neill said after the hearing.)

“It’s not the commission’s role to determine whether or not the application is for a legal use,” O’Neill continued. “It is for the council — the city administration and the issuance of a business license — or ultimately other authorities to determine that, so the question before the planning commission is, should the footprint of the armory building, the entire footprint of the armory building, be permitted to use the same uses that that back third of the armory of the armory are already permitted.”

Planning commission member Christine Bennett explained the commission’s limited role to attendees of the public hearing.

“We understand that our recommendation is solely for zoning,” she said. “The property has already been purchased. It’s already owned; it’s going to happen. The only thing we’re doing is saying, ‘The rest of your property can also be used for what you’re going to use that back half of your property for.’”

Bennett said the commission opted to hold a hearing to maintain transparency and give the public an opportunity to ask questions.

Mike Oldaker, a longtime Upshur County resident and contractor with bioRemedies, said the company had a “vast vision” for the processing facility.

“We want to produce a pharmaceutical grade medicinal product, but there are many other medicinal plants that we would like to look at, at some point in the future,” he said. “We have a vast vision and hope for that building, and that building, if things go to fruition, would be a world-class facility. It would employ a significant number of people, and would fuel the creation of an industry in West Virginia for farmers to make more money than they’ve ever made before.”

Powers, the CEO of bioRemedies, argued that CBD products can transform lives, pointing to an example of a 13-year-old boy with severe pediatric epilepsy whose seizures decreased from 10 or more a day to only three a week when using CBD. He said there’s testimonials that CBD products can also decrease the severity of tremors associated with Parkinson’s Disease as well as being effective in alleviating post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms and in lessening anxiety and chronic pain.

The doctor also claimed CBD can help individuals addicted to opioids wean off them.

“I’m not here to get into the politics of marijuana,” Powers said. “That’s not what we do. That’s not what’s going to happen at the armory. There are 80 chemicals in this plant (cannabis) that if you grow this plant for the cannabidiol — the CBD portion of it — you can control pain without addiction and you can stop seizures, and we’ve got proof.

“I cannot overemphasize, this is not a ‘get high’ program …that’s what we need to do a better job of educating people about is that this is a cannabis plant grown for the medical compounds that are in there that have nothing to do with psychoactive effects.”

Rob Hinton, executive director of the Upshur County Development Authority, was also on hand to add his two cents to the debate.

Hinton presented a letter of support for the rezoning proposal from W.Va. agriculture commissioner Kent Leonhardt and also briefed attendees on the possible economic benefits bioRemedies could bring to the area.

“It is an emerging industry with emerging markets,” Hinton said. “It is projected to grow at a substantial rate over the next two to three years. The hemp industry as a whole, the domestic side of it, is looking to go from about $400 million annually to roughly $2.1 or $2.4 billion with a ‘b’ by 2020, and then possibly, a little over $3 billion in 2021.

“We need to recruit industries that are going to be labor-intensive,” Hinton continued. “Automation is going to affect our job creation capabilities as we move forward. This industry is labor-intensive. It involves all the way down from … farming to the manufacturing aspect of it. We can create jobs through this industry and diversify our economy.”

Amanda Barbo-Vezinat, a supporter of the pro-cannabis movement, urged the commission to recommend approving the zoning change.

She said there are 61 people with permits to grow hemp in the Mountain State — but currently, there’s no processing facility here.

“Where are they going to send their products?” Vezinat said. “Why would we take what we can keep in home, in state, bring in jobs, why would we send it somewhere else to process it? We’re looking at the opportunity for our state to move forward.”

Vezinat said as a medically retired veteran, she’s benefited greatly from CBD.

“I am 60 percent disabled,” she said. “I have come off of two medications already because of CBD oils, and that’s a big deal to me.”

Although no one present at the meeting spoke against the rezoning proposal, former city council candidate Robert Osburn sent a letter to planning commission chair Ann Livesay stating his opposition to the change that would allow bioRemedies to set up shop. Osburn said he was primarily concerned about the reputation Buckhannon would earn if the company establishes a processing facility here.

“After all Buckhannon has [done] and transformed into, do you really want to be responsible for allowing our city to be known as the city that makes marijuana?” Osburn wrote in the statement that he shared with The Record Delta. “That’s what will happen if this is allowed. Everything everyone has worked for will go down the drain by this one decision. I know this meeting is just a formality because they have already started working on the building, but I vote no. We don’t need this negativity in our already drug laced town.”

“My intent was that even though they will not be growing marijuana, that’s what the perception will be and that’s what outsiders will know us by,” Osburn’s statement reads.

The city planning commission is scheduled to vote on the issue at a special meeting at 7 p.m. June 18.

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