Unease in Thorndike as marijuana business, resident thought their deal was done

THORNDIKE — Donald Maxim thought the process of selling his 170 acres of farmland to out-of-state commercial marijuana grower Nova Farms was all but done. This week he learned the transaction is in flux, leaving the business and landowner equally frustrated.

Despite the town voting to opt into Maine’s adult-use marijuana policy at an August town meeting, the topic is up for another vote when a special town meeting convenes next week to consider a six-month moratorium to create a local marijuana-related business ordinance.

“I think they’re trying to close the barn door after the horse has left,” Maxim said.

The Thorndike Board of Selectmen voted 3-0 at a regular meeting Wednesday to schedule the special town meeting to vote on the moratorium and address another hot button topic, the sand and salt shed. The special town meeting is scheduled for 9 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 16, at the Thorndike Fire Department.

“We need to make sure we give the citizens input and need to protect the citizens of the town,” said Waldo County Sheriff Jeff Trafton, Thorndike’s second selectman. “I am in favor of the moratorium if that’s what the citizens want. What it comes down to is what the citizens of Thorndike want, because that’s who I represent.”

Maxim, 86, and his wife, Bertha, 87, plan to move into a senior care complex in Bangor within the next month. They’ve sold a lot of property over the years, including the land where the Common Ground Country Fair is celebrated in Unity. Right now, there’s just hay on the farmland.

“We have some health problems, and it’s too much to take care of,” Donald Maxim said.

Thorndike residents voted 34-25 in favor of adopting the state’s adult-use marijuana policy at the annual Town Meeting on Aug. 20, 2020. The state regulations cover legal cultivation, processing and distribution of adult marijuana. The town did not make its own ordinance, which is not mandatory as the state monitors the process throughout Maine. Towns can adopt their own ordinances for more specific rules, and many towns do have their own ordinances.

David Heidrich, director of engagement and community outreach for the state of Maine’s Office of Marijuana Policy, wrote in an email that he has no direct knowledge of the situation in Thorndike and that towns are not required to notify the state when they do opt-in. Heidrich pointed to the Marijuana Legalization Act, which repeats the term “may” in regards to municipalities adopting a local ordinance.

Donald Maxim, 86, stands in the garage at his home and farm, Maxim Farm, in Thorndike on Friday. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

The Maine Municipal Association declined a request to comment on this story.

“While a town or city may not need one, they are well within their rights to decide to implement an ordinance or ordinances, even if that effort follows a previous decision to opt-in to the adult use marijuana program,” Heidrich wrote.

The board of selectmen maintains that they want to establish an ordinance before a new business comes in.

“The state requirements are all black and white, but the town of Thorndike doesn’t have an ordinance yet,” Bob Carter, Thorndike’s third selectman, said. “It was like the (cart) was put before the horse.”

First Selectman Doreen Berry did not return phone calls or emails seeking comment for this story.

The business interested in the farmland, the landowner and some residents question the timing of the vote on a moratorium. Derek Ross, Nova Farms’ CEO, told the Morning Sentinel in an interview that Nova Farms signed a purchase and sale agreement with Maxim at the end of September. The sale was supposed to close this week, but the agreement had to be extended because of the potential moratorium.

“We’ve spent a lot of money putting this project together,” Ross said. “We’re at the finish line, and we got a curveball thrown at us, so we’re pushing off the closing until we can better understand what the town is going to do.”

Nova Farms, an outdoor cannabis grower with a farm in Attleboro, Massachusetts, already has a conditional Maine tier 4 outdoor cultivation license, which allows up to 20,000 square feet of plan canopy for the Thorndike location. Ross, who resides in Rockwood, did not have many details about the operation because they are unsure about the legitimacy of its future. Nova Farms representatives were the first people to look at Maxim’s land.

Ross believes the farm would employ 35-50 full- and part-time workers. The business hires local, and the goal, Ross said, is “to stimulate the local economy.” The company also agreed to pay all applicable fees from a future local ordinance in order to have a 2021 growing season.

“We just want to be good neighbors,” Ross said. “We’re the first ones on the entire East Coast to have an outdoor license, so if the town doesn’t want us there, we don’t want to be there, but if the town wants us there, we’re professional.”

Ordinance or not, moratorium or not, the Board of Selectmen must sign off on the state application for them to come.

Carter believes the special town meeting will speed up the process without having to wait until the next town meeting. The new board took office after the policy was approved in late August.

Joshua Ard, a former Thorndike selectman, believes there could’ve been a moratorium in place long ago and called the situation “sand bagging.” He said when he served on the select board, from March 2019 until August 2020, the Planning Board did not want to write an ordinance because one cannot charge extra for permits.

That assessment may not be completely correct. Heidrich said that there is a general understanding that a municipality may only charge reasonable licensing fees to offset any costs incurred by the community.

“There was no financial benefit to them having their ordinance, so the Planning Board flat refused to do it,” Ard said. “This has potential to bring some money to Thorndike … This is like the renaissance of farming that can bring some life to some places.”

Patty Pendergast, who is also a member of the town’s Planning Board, was a member of the board that did not want to write the ordinance. Berry’s husband, Michael, chairs the Planning Board. Pendergast said five residents who attended a public hearing had a “knee-jerk reaction” to anything about marijuana.

“It’s mostly because it’s a conservative town, and people are more anti-marijuana than anything else,” Pendergast said. “It’s a passive-aggressive ‘we don’t want to do anything like this.’”

In terms of the sand and salt shed, selectmen went through bids and selected the company that designed the town office and fire station. The town will not vote to authorize the board to pay the fee. They are asking for two designs, a 50-year wooden structure and a prefabricated building. Once they get the plans and estimated costs, the board will go back to the town again for a vote.

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