Not in My Neighborhood: Residents Rally Against Mt. Airy Medical Marijuana Dispensary

The dispensary owner, TerraVida, was awarded a license by the state Department of Health in June.

Dozens of residents and stakeholders, some wearing stickers that read "I live in Mt. Airy and I oppose this location," crammed into a Philadelphia zoning hearing Tuesday morning to lay out their concerns about a state-approved medical marijuana dispensary.

A defunct bank at 8319 Stenton Avenue near East Allen Lane would be converted into the facility, which would provide tinctures, oils and edibles to approved patients. The cannabis plant, itself, would not be grown or sold on the premises. 

The building is in a residential neighborhood some worry could be exposed to crime, litter and crowding should TerraVida Holistic Center be allowed to operate there.

The dispensary owner, Christine Visco, was awarded a license by the state Department of Health in June, but lawyers representing members of the community said TerraVida was not in full compliance at the time of permitting.

Representatives for TerraVida argued that many zoning restrictions enacted by the city came after the state issued permits to potential medical marijuana businesses. They will retrofit if necessary, lawyers representing Visco said.

"This case has nothing to do with medical marijuana," TerraVida attorney Michael Phillips said. "This is a land-use issue."

Despite the understanding that Tuesday's hearing would be a referendum on Pennsylvania's medical marijuana program, residents questioned if drug dealers would be attracted to the area and worried the impact this facility could have on young children in the area.

A home daycare center currently operates within 500 feet of the building, which would be in conflict with the city's ordinance to maintain at least that much distance from any child-serving institution. But TerraVida lawyers argued that the daycare center is not licensed by the city, only the state, and therefore not a concern for the dispensary. 

Tensions rose throughout the first two hours of testimony as residents murmured, snickered and occasionally shouted.

At one point, an attorney representing opponents of the dispensary compared zoning issues to segregation in the 1960s.

"It's a question of whether the city preempts the state," David Fineman said.

Among his complaints, Fineman argued TerraVida does not have a garage door or covering mandated by the state to provide coverage for cars and trucks that will unload product into the dispensary. Lawyers representing TerraVida said retrofitting of the existing building, which functioned as a bank for several years, would be done in accordance with state law, but did not have to be completed prior to receiving a license to operate.

"It was a nightmare when it came to parking," said one resident who has lived on E. Allens Lane for 35 years and remembers overflow parking obstructing her own home.

Councilwoman Cherrelle Parker, who represents the neighborhood, accused TerraVida of not meeting with community members before applying for a permit at the Stenton Avenue location.

"They never talked to me about it," she said. "We were shocked that the attorney never even informed us this was occurring."

In an apparent attempt to ease anger, the chairman of the zoning board offered one alternative.

"Sometimes you might want to look for another place," former City Councilman Frank DiCicco said as audience members clapped and whistled.

"I know this community well. They're not going to give up."

After more than two hours of back-and-forth, both sides agreed to break. The hearing will be continued Sept. 19 at 9:30 a.m. 

"I know what some of you sacrificed to be here," Parker said before Mt. Airy residents boarded buses and shuttles back to their neighborhood. "But come September, if you can't be here, you better find someone to take your place."

Councilwoman Cindy Bass said in an emailed statement that she will ask the Department of Health to revoke TerraVida's permit during a Wednesday morning press conference. 

Editor's Note: The president of TerraVida Holistic Center is the sister of NBC10’s Deanna Durante. Deanna is not involved in the business venture.

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