A recent judicial decision has many wondering if Hoboken’s nascent cannabis industry will ever get off the ground. A September 26th ruling by Hudson County Superior Court Judge Anthony D’Elia voided a decision made by the Hoboken Planning Board in approving plans for cannabis dispensary Blue Violets to open at 628 Washington Street. Read on to learn more about the circumstances in this case and what it could mean for other would-be cannabis businesses in Hoboken.
About the decision
A September 26th ruling by Hudson County Superior Court Judge Anthony D’Elia voided a 2022 decision made by the Hoboken Planning Board in approving plans for cannabis dispensary Blue Violets to open at 628 Washington Street. According to NJ.com, the decision came in a long-running dispute between Blue Violets and citizen activist group Hoboken for Responsible Cannabis (HRC).
The lawsuit was brought by HRC against Blue Violets and the Hoboken Planning Board in October 2022 and sought to void the Planning Board’s decision approving Blue Violets. The argument was based on the store’s location: at 628 Washington Street, Blue Violets is located within 600 feet of All Saints Episcopal Day School and Hoboken Charter School.
Judge D’Elia’s order did not include a memo with his reasoning and no transcript has been made publicly available of the hearing.
The initial cannabis regulation adopted by the City of Hoboken prohibited dispensaries within 200 feet of any schools. Those regulations were adopted in August 2021. However, in April 2022, changes were made to the zoning principles applicable to cannabis locations and to the total number of cannabis dispensaries allowable in Hoboken. These are referred to as the ‘commonsense cannabis’ changes, per the description of the changes by Hoboken Mayor Ravi S. Bhalla.
One provision in these updates was that the boundary around schools was increased to a 600-foot perimeter from the existing 200-foot perimeter. HRC’s argument was that Blue Violets’ application was not fully submitted until after the ‘commonsense’ regulations went into effect on April 28th, 2022.
Blue Violets’ application was approved in April 2022 by the Cannabis Review Board. Blue Violets submitted its application material to the Planning Board in April 2022, but there was no hearing on the matter until July 2022.
In July 2022, the Hoboken Planning Board Subdivision and Site Plan Committee approved Blue Violets’ application, having resolved any jurisdictional issues. Councilwomen Tiffanie Fisher and Jen Giattino, along with resident Liz Urtecho submitted a letter to the Planning Board asking for Blue Violets’ application not to be heard, based on the updated regulations. However, the committee unanimously agreed to send Blue Violets’ application forward. “I think at this point you’re ready to go. The [jurisdictional] issues have been addressed. The time of application concern was minor. I wanted to be sure there are no issues later on,” Planning Board Chair Frank Magaletta explained, according to the Hudson County View.
In September 2022, the Hoboken Planning Board approved Blue Violets’ application. The meeting was four hours long and contentious, with several neighbors weighing in passionately on both sides of the debate.
It’s important to note that while the Planning Board is the final step for a business to get the go-ahead to open, the business must first get approval from the Cannabis Review Board which accounts for the time elapsed between the initial hearing at the Cannabis Review Board in April 2022 and the Planning Board in September 2022. And, since cannabis is also regulated by the state, any dispensary must also get approval from the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission (NJCRC), an entirely separate process.
The Hoboken Planning Board’s approval of Blue Violets’ application at the September 2022 hearing is what prompted the lawsuit.
Hoboken for Responsible Cannabis
At the September 2022 Planning Board meeting, Hoboken resident Liz Utrecho went on the record saying that she would bring a lawsuit if Blue Violets’ application was approved. Liz Utrecho has been a vocal opponent of both Blue Violets and Story Dispensary and is the founder of Hoboken for Responsible Cannabis. The citizen activist organization was founded in October 2022.
In a statement following Judge D’Elia’s September 26th ruling, she said; “The law and the facts were on our side, and I am happy the judge agreed. The dispensary is too close to the school – breaking our local ordinance, but when we brought it up to the city, the planning board, and our local representatives, they would not listen to us. It didn’t have to get this far; if the residents’ voices had only been heard from the beginning.”
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Now, Liz is running for Hoboken City Council. She is running for the 5th Ward council seat which is held by incumbent Phil Cohen. Cannabis is not listed as one of her main policy issues, which include “rats, smarter open spaces, more budget transparency, prioritize education and affordable housing” according to her campaign web page.
The Hoboken for Responsible Cannabis website lists the organization’s two initiatives as ‘Story Dispensary’ and ‘Blue Violets’. Its mission, according to its website, is “Hoboken for Responsible Cannabis (HRC) is a group of Hoboken residents concerned about the implementation of cannabis dispensaries in our community. We support the legalization of marijuana and its social equity mission, but want to ensure that local and state laws are followed and that dispensary locations improve the quality of life for Hoboken residents.”
Blue Violets | 628 Washington Street
Blue Violets was quite literally days away from opening when the ruling came out. Blue Violets is co-owned by husband and wife team Lauren Chang Thompson and Max Thompson. As of September 26th, they were in possession of final approval from the NJCRC, and had received local approvals from Hoboken, with both a completed certificate of occupancy and passing the final building inspection.
Blue Violets product card prototype. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Blue Violets
The opening would have been the culmination of literally years of work by the pair. “We spent months even looking for a space,” Lauren said. “Driving around North Jersey, trying to find a good space, understanding the local zoning laws, and working with a landlord who was open to a cannabis business.” Just finding a space was just the first step, in addition to working through the various compliance processes, developing relationships with vendors, and all of the other tasks that come with starting a business.
Time of Application Protection is a 2011 law that gives developers or other parties entering into a permitting process with a city the protection of the laws that were in place at the time the application process begins. In the case of Blue Violets, the application process began in February 2022, so Max said that those laws, the pre-’commonsense regulations,’ should have protected Blue Violets’ application from the start.
Lauren Chang Thompson and Max Thompson. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Blue Violets
“The Time of Application protections apply for land use boards. The Cannabis Review Board is technically an advisory committee but it acts like a land use board because it makes decisions on how land can be used,” Max said. “Because our application began with the CRB, based on the way Hoboken’s laws are set up, the Judge’s ruling indicates that the Time of Application protections do not apply. If the application process had begun with the Planning Board, the protections would have applied. So the system has been set up with a giant hole in it,” he said. “We can’t even go to the Planning Board without CRB approval.”
Max continued, “We are fully confident there is a compromise. There’s no way that the distance of a dispensary from a school is the real issue,” he said. “What we have observed from this process is that it is unfair to cannabis applicants,”
Max said that while he and Lauren are greatly dismayed by the current state of affairs, they are exploring other options. “We are working with our lawyers about filing an appeal or even a stay,” he said. A stay would put the ruling ‘on hold’ until a decision can be worked out, meaning the business would be able to open. “We also want to educate neighbors about what’s happening,” he said. “These rules make no sense and we want citizens to know what’s going on in their community.”
Max and Lauren said that neither they nor their lawyers were notified about the September 26th hearing. They said that the hearing wasn’t added to the case docket, either, which is why no one from their side was at the hearing.
“We’re a small business. It’s just been the two of us going through this process together, and we’ve put so much effort and money into getting our approvals over these last 2 years and getting through Hoboken’s very long application process,” he said. “We lost even more money in legal fees because of this lawsuit, and now we can’t open our store even though it’s done and ready to open. We just want to provide the community with a safe shop for cannabis that is locally owned and operated. We really hope the rules can be fixed so that we can open, otherwise, we’ll have lost everything on this.”
Story Dispensary | 51-53 14th Street
Story Dispensary will be located at 51-53 14th Street in Hoboken, in the former Hudson Tavern space. The Hoboken City Council approved Story Dispensary in December 2022. That same month, the 51-53 Condominium Association, the association of neighbors who live in the condo building in which the retail space is located on the ground floor, sued Story Dispensary and the Hoboken Planning Board. The lawsuit sought to have the Planning Board’s approval of the dispensary vacated. This is a separate lawsuit from one filed by the same plaintiffs seeking to stop Story from opening.
A settlement in this case was reached in September 2023. Lee Vartan, attorney for Story Dispensary, shared the following statement: “The parties have reached an amicable, confidential settlement. The settlement will allow Story of Hoboken to open its doors and begin to serve the Hoboken community in the coming months. The litigation has changed nothing. Story was always committed to bringing the best consumer experience to its customers while being respectful of its uptown Hoboken neighbors and the condominium association. Story looks forward to becoming a part of Hoboken’s vibrant small business community.”
Hoboken for Responsible Cannabis lists Story Dispensary as one of the group’s initiatives. HRC sent a letter to the NJCRC asking that the NJCRC investigate Story Dispensary and deny its application for a state license. HG has asked for more information from HRC about its Story Dispensary initiative.
What’s Next for Cannabis in Hoboken
According to Marilyn Baer, Communications Manager for the City of Hoboken, “The [Blue Violets] ruling will have no bearing on future decisions regarding cannabis as the City Council’s amended cannabis legislation is already in effect. Simply put, the ruling was based upon the very specific facts and circumstances of that particular application and the controlling law has since been amended so these facts cannot be repeated.”
Marci continued, “Both businesses are required to follow the same rules and regulations. A resolution, recently passed by the City Council, may permit Culture to re-submit its application, amended as necessary, to the Hoboken Cannabis Review Board, basically restarting their process. The Blue Violet case remains unsettled due to a recent court ruling.”
Another incoming dispensary has also had administrative and legal challenges working with the Cannabis Review Board (CRB). Culture Hoboken LLC sued the CRB in August 2022 alleging that in denying Culture its license, the CRB “failed to provide adequate justification for denial of support or endorsement in the resolution as it failed to justify why plaintiff will not have a positive impact on the city’s community.”
As with Blue Violets’ application, a particular challenge in this circumstance is that the City of Hoboken changed its cannabis regulations in April 2022. The settlement offer with Culture would see the hearing happen under the ‘old’ rules, before the April 2022 update.
Culture Hoboken had originally applied with the address of 321 Washington Street, but will have a new address at the new hearing. The Council approved the settlement with a vote of 5-4, permitting a new CRB hearing under the ‘old’ rules and allowing a new address to be used for the business. As of this writing, the new hearing has not been scheduled. HG has reached out to Culture Hoboken to learn more about its plans.
The Bigger Picture
While the New Jersey law was written in a way to promote small businesses and has an emphasis on social justice initiatives involving marijuana, at this point it’s hard to see the goal of that legislation coming to fruition in Hoboken. Many have pointed out the irony of residents in a city known for its dense population of bars and restaurants now pushing back against highly regulated cannabis businesses.
Four out of the six types of cannabis businesses permitted in New Jersey are permitted in Hoboken: Class 3 Wholesaler, Class 5 Retailer, Class 6 Delivery license, and Medical Cannabis Dispensary. On-site consumption is prohibited, and so are public queues outside the store. Of the original groups that had plans for cannabis-related businesses in Hoboken, three have been involved in lengthy lawsuits with neighbors and/or the City (Story, Blue Violets, and Culture), and one is likely to be sold (Harmony) and its plans for its Hoboken space are unknown. The remaining three (Jersey Joint, Terrapin Care Station, and Village) still haven’t opened yet.
Those involved in cannabis businesses tell HG that the average community member would be shocked at the amount of time, money, and effort that goes into launching a cannabis business. Compliance alone is a six-figure expense and many business owners have to hire outside consultants to help manage both the state and local approval processes because it’s so complex.
Cannabis business owners also have a hard time finding space for their businesses, since not every landlord is willing to have cannabis on site. Rent is high in Hudson County, so finding the right space might mean paying several months’ worth of rent on an empty space while the various approval processes work their way through governmental systems.
Part of the regulations governing cannabis prescribes the physical security systems required for these types of businesses. What’s in the law is merely the minimum and many business owners go above and beyond to offer top-of-the-line protection for their customers.
One architect that HG spoke to said that the customer experience at these dispensaries is more similar to buying high-end jewelry than anything else. Montclair-based architect Rachael H. Grochowski, NCARB, RA has worked with several cannabis businesses to design dispensaries and other related businesses.
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Rachael says that the cannabis retail businesses could look or feel like any other retail experience. There are some elements that make it like a liquor store, in that it is so heavily regulated, and others that make it more like a bank, because of the security elements. “People are spending a lot of money on these businesses,” Rachael said. “The customer experience is going to be a huge part of it.”
Even within New Jersey, the individual townships’ regulations mean things will be different from community to community. “For example, in Maplewood, there may be a dispensary where you can pull a product from a locked drawer behind the POS, but in Newark, you can’t. So you need to understand that as you are designing the space,” Rachael said. “That informs how you can display the product. It ends up being more like a jewelry store. Everything is small and everything is locked. In both jewelry and cannabis, there’s an aspect of individual service.”