Rendering of what the medical marijuana dispensary on Route 73 would look like. A Giant Fitness gym now is in the building, which is owned by Balducci Inc. of Haddonfield.

After a marathon meeting listening to Curaleaf New Jersey Inc.'s request to open a medical marijuana dispensary on Route 73, the Mount Laurel Zoning Board of Adjustment late Wednesday night decided to continue its review at its September 2 session.

Curaleaf wants to open the marijuana facility just over the Evesham Township line at 1315 Route 73. The property is owned by Balducci Inc. of Haddonfield and now houses a Giant Fitness gym, which remains closed under the state's COVID-19 regulations. Curaleaf would lease all of the space.

One underlying question during the meeting: Would Curaleaf plan to sell recreational marijuana from the building if New Jersey voters in November approve a ballot question legalizing the adult use of the drug.

Curaleaf representatives testified their company would be the sole occupant of the building, using 8,000 square feet for the medical marijuana dispensary and holding 8,225 square feet unoccupied. A condition by the zoning board states the facility can be used only for the sale of medical marijuana.

However, if the recreational use of marijuana is legalized and Curaleaf wants to expand its use of the Route 73 building to marijuana sales to the public, the company would return to the zoning board for permission because it would be a non-conforming use, said CherylLynn Walters, the Egg Harbor Township lawyer representing the applicant before the board.

Chris Melillo, Curaleaf senior vice president of retail operations, said the medical marijuana company was established about five years ago and now has 88 dispensaries in 23 states with more than 3,000 employees.

Melillo, a Medford resident, said the company's state license in New Jersey allows it three dispensaries, one manufacturing plant and one cultivation or growing site. Curaleaf has opened only one dispensary, in Bellmawr, Camden County. The Mount Laurel site would be the company's second in the state.

The typical medical marijuana customer is 50 years old and male (60% male/40% female), Melillo said. Patients typically are prescribed medical marijuana to address pain or the lack of sleep from the pain, he said. The Mount Laurel location would sell only to New Jersey residents with prescriptions. No on-site consumption of the marijuana is allowed, Curaleaf representatives said.

Medical marijuana is a cash-only (or debit card) business, Melillo said. The dispensary would have an armed security staff of seven plus a security director, he said. The facility also would have a vault to store the marijuana. About 20 dispensary employees, not including security, would work over two shifts.

Some board members said they were concerned about the location of any residential property within 1,000 feet of the building — whether the residences were in Mount Laurel or Evesham.

The proposed site is about 950 feet to a daycare center on Commerce Parkway and about 800 feet to single-family homes on Amberfield Drive, according to Curaleaf's application.

A letter in March from board engineer Joseph M. Petrongolo to board members estimated the distances as 895 feet to the daycare center and 355 feet to residential areas. During Wednesday's meeting, Petrongolo said that, under the ordinance, measurements must go from property line to property line and the daycare center is about 685 feet from the site. 

Curaleaf lawyer Walters said Evesham Township did not receive notice of the Curaleaf proposal because the Evesham border is not within 200 feet of the building. Evesham is 220 feet away, she said.

"We can only consider what's going on in Mount Laurel," township Solicitor John Armano Jr. advised the board.

Board member John Francescone added that the board could legally consider only the impact within Mount Laurel — not in other municipalities — in approving or not approving the plan.

Testifying for Curaleaf, planner James Miller said the 1,000-foot distance rule was largely to prevent sites that would be "visually intrusive to the surrounding community." He presented an aerial map showing how other business complexes and Commerce Parkway were between the proposed site and the daycare center and homes.

"Is this the right place in Mount Laurel for it," asked Kenneth Isdaner, co-owner of the office building next door at 1317 Route 73, who spoke during the public testimony portion of the meeting. Isdaner, and co-owner Richard Schwartz, testified they were concerned about parking overflowing from Curaleaf onto their property.

Another member of the public, Janet Caniglia of Amberfield Drive, said there are no barriers between her neighborhood and the proposed Curaleaf site. "I have a big problem this facility would be opened this close to our homes," she testified to the board.

Daniel McGovern, who also lives on Amberfield Drive, said he is a commercial real estate broker and asked why Curaleaf couldn't find other space in Mount Laurel that wouldn't require exceptions to the 1,000-foot rule.

Curaleaf representatives will have the opportunity to answer public and board questions at the September meeting.

Background on the Curaleaf company

Although the Mount Laurel zoning application from October 2019 notes Curaleaf in Bellmawr is a nonprofit, it has since been purchased by Curaleaf Holdings Inc., a publicly traded company based in Wakefield, Massachusetts, the company announced in early July. Curaleaf is listed on the Canadian Securities Exchange.

"With our strong growth and a cannabis adult-use ballot approval on the horizon, we are actively investing in the expansion of our market leading position to better serve the more than nine million residents of the Garden State with the quality cannabis products they rely on," Curaleaf's CEO, Joseph Lusardi, said in a statement announcing the acquisition of Curaleaf in New Jersey. In 2018, Curaleaf dispensed 36% of the total medical marijuana sold in New Jersey, according to the company.

Curaleaf's state license and other assets were acquired in exchange for the public company canceling loans used to fund the building of the former nonprofit. New Jersey initially required such facilities to be nonprofits.

"Curaleaf's business in New Jersey operates the state's largest medical cannabis dispensary as well as more than 51,000 square feet of cultivation and processing space in Bellmawr, NJ, through its integrated license. ... Curaleaf plans to open two additional New Jersey dispensary locations, as well as an additional cultivation and processing operation, for which the company has secured a facility in the Township of Winslow, creating hundreds of jobs for the state," according to the acquisition announcement.

The state's medical marijuana distributors would be at a strategic advantage and in place should New Jersey voters in November approve the sale of marijuana to people 21 and older for recreational use.

"Rob DiPisa, partner and co-chair of cannabis law group Cole Schotz, called New Jersey a 'hot market' that has continuously expanded its medical marijuana program and, therefore, has the infrastructure in place for a successful recreational program," according to an article by Marijuana Business Daily, which hosted DiPisa and others in the industry in a panel discussion in June.

"In anticipation of future market growth and a continued favorable regulatory trend, Curaleaf NJ has secured a 129,000 square foot facility in Winslow, NJ, which it is building out for additional cultivation capacity. Curaleaf NJ expects to complete its first harvest from the Winslow facility by the end of 2020," according to a Curaleaf management discussion of its business filed with the Canadian Securities Exchange last year.