Residents pack a Zoning Board of Adjustment hearing Tuesday to protest a medical marijuana dispensary, which in March gained city approval to open in Mt. Airy. (Photo by Bobby Allyn/WHYY)

by Jan Alex

Upon arriving on the 18th floor of Philadelphia’s Municipal Services it was clear right away that this was not another normal day at the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment.

The room, doorway, and entire hallway of the 18th floor of the Municipal Services Building were packed with more than 100 men and women dressed uniformly in red, all adorned with stickers that read: “I Live in East Mt. Airy and I Oppose this Location.”

The assembled crowd held signs and banners overhead that read “Good Stuff, Bad Location,” “No Community Input,” and “We WILL be Noticed!” Even 8th District Councilwoman Cindy Bass and State Rep. Chris Rabb made appearances to speak out on behalf of the community’s concerns in what would be a three-hour long hearing that ended without resolution.

The crowd had gathered in support of 9th District City Councilwoman Cherelle Parker’s appeal of TerraVida Holistic Center’s permit to operate a marijuana dispensary in an abandoned bank building at 8319-25 Stenton Ave. Parker has insisted that the Department of Licenses and Inspections (L&I) didn’t comply with Commonwealth laws when it issued a zoning permit to TerraVida. If the ZBA overturns the zoning permit, it will send TerraVida back to the drawing board, compelling the company to re-apply to L&I and possibly forcing it to look for a new location.

Since the intention of Terra Vida to open a medical marijuana dispensary at the Stenton Avenue location was announced back in March this year, it has met with significant opposition from neighbors. Parker has led efforts to block the location.

She submitted the appeal in late April, just days after holding a community meeting in which 400 neighbors attended to express concerns with the location. She and other lawmakers, including Rabb and Bass have insisted the location is residential and is a poor fit for a marijuana dispensary.

In a conversation with the Chestnut Hill Local several weeks ago, TerraVida president Chris Visco said that she was “not concerned” about Parker’s appeal and would fight it.

Parker’s lawyer David Fineman, was the first to address the ZBA promising to “stay all day” if necessary. His argument had a wide scope, and he constantly sought to bring into play the Commonwealth laws regarding medical marijuana dispensaries, laws that TeraVida’s attorneys Michael Phillips and Hercules Grigos claimed should be “irrelevant to today’s hearing and the board’s decision.”

In addition to claims that L&I erred in granting the zoning permit to Terra Vida, Fineman suggested the company had intentionally sought to exploit loopholes and contradictions that existed within city and state codes for medical marijuana dispensaries.

Phillips and Grigos strongly rejected these claims, arguing that their client was in compliance with both state and city laws throughout the entirety of the process of purchasing the property and applying for a use permit.

After three hours of deliberation, the hearing was adjourned until Sept. 19.