Five months later, Story Dispensary gets Planning Board clearance

The controversial dispensary endured numerous meetings and criticism as they sought approval

The Multi-Service Center in Hoboken hosted the final chapter of Story Dispensary's long-sought quest for Planning Board approval. Photo by Mark Koosau.

After five months (though it feels like eons have passed), Story Dispensary, the controversial retail cannabis applicant that has sparked debates over cannabis in Hoboken over the past year, has received their long-sought approval by the Planning Board after a six hour meeting on Nov. 1.

In a time frame where Queen Elizabeth II died, Max Verstappen won his second world championship in Formula 1 and Elon Musk bought Twitter, the applicants, who are seeking a store at the former Hudson Tavern in the northeast corner of the city, had to endure numerous long meetings for Planning Board approval that began back in June.

Their surrounding controversy has lasted nearly a year; initially appearing before the Cannabis Review Board in February, they have been subject to criticism over how a cannabis dispensary would affect the neighborhood, their transparency, and even their political connections in Hudson County.

As Story Dispensary sought Planning Board approval, their meetings, sometimes stretching into 1 a.m. in the morning, had consisted of numerous public questioning and lengthy cross-examination by an attorney representing the condo association where Story could be.

Story was also sued by the condo association in May to stop them, but had their case dismissed by a judge, though they can refile another in the future as it was dismissed without prejudice.

Christopher Ling, an architect and planner, argued on behalf of the condo association that Story wasn’t suited for the zone it’s in and that it didn’t meet a number of conditions. Photo by Mark Koosau.

The controversy culminated in a fifth and final hearing at the Multi-Service Center, where Martin Cabalar, the attorney representing the condo association, began by having Christopher Ling, a planner and architect, argue that Story didn’t meet “the spirit” of the commercial zone it’s located in.

Ling also argued that they didn’t meet a number of conditions to get approval and should therefore be denied, such as using a basement when a dispensary can only be on the first floor, that their security cameras will have blind spots, that lines will show up on the sidewalk, that they didn’t meet the parking requirements and they also don’t have a loading zone.

During a lengthy cross-examination by Jennifer Porter, an attorney for Story, Porter said that they’re willing to agree to obtain a designated loading space at the southwest corner of 14th Street, compared to their original plans to have the products unloaded from a nearby garage.

After cross-testimony ended, Commissioner and Councilman Jim Doyle questioned the argued conditions, saying that if they have issues in particular, they could impose conditions themselves to fix them such as with queuing or security cameras.

“If we wanted to impose conditions, make the dispensary room smaller and make the whatever room bigger, would you agree that we could cure some of these issues that you’ve very effectively pointed out by introducing conditions?” asked Doyle.

Ling answered that they could if the board felt that they didn’t meet the criteria, but then said that they would have to review the numbers if any plans are redone.

“I think what’s been happening is each one of these criteria has an answer, and there is an answer, there’s a proposal,” he said. “But do the proposals work? So if you say, ‘I’ll give you a condition upon making a change here or there’, how do you know that change here will actually work as a whole?”

Later in the meeting, Cabalar brought up a letter he sent on Oct. 28 about the lease agreement for the property, saying that the owners of the property are going to lease it to a Wyoming LLC that uses an address that belongs to Aaron Epstein, who said previously that he’s providing management services for Story.

He continued that after the lease is executed, the lessee will sublet the property to Story, which he says goes against testimony said before the Cannabis Review Board and the Planning Board.

“I think what this really does is just show that the real applicant before the Planning Board is the landlord,” said Cabalar. “So they haven’t been transparent, and I think the board should take that into consideration when it assesses the credibility of the witnesses.”

The owners of the property where Story could be are Drew Nussbaum and Jaclyn Fulop, the wife of Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop. Nussbaum also runs a Fulop-linked super PAC called “Coalition for Progress”, which had previously received a contribution from one of Epstein’s businesses, Garden State Dispensary.

Cabalar also said that the property owners have an investment in the property if it’s approved because of a purchase option that has a time frame of December 2022 to May 2023, which he says makes the representation of the owner inconsistent.

Representatives from Story Dispensary had to endure five meetings over five months, with some even going past midnight. Photo by Mark Koosau.

Porter disputed the letter, saying that it is “wholly irrelevant” to the board proceedings and that Epstein “has nothing to do with the ownership of this property”, saying that his address is there because “it’s common in many real estate contracts where you designate a registered agent.”

Chairman Frank Magaletta did say however that he had an issue with the applicant being the actual applicant in interest. Board attorney Scott Carlson also agreed, and said that if the board felt that Epstein or anyone else was being inaccurate, it would come down to them on whether they felt the testimony was truthful or not.

When Doyle also asked if the matter should be remanded back to the Cannabis Review Board if they were also deceived, Carlson said that he’s never known a Planning Board that has a prerequisite board first, and that he didn’t have an answer.

“Let’s call them like we see them, probably this will end up in a court and all these issues will get sorted out on that end,” said Carlson. “I think that’s probably the board’s best posture.”

After the public was limited to questioning over the past five months, they were finally able to give their full opinions on Story during public comment, with nearly all of them being negative against them.

Tom Brennan, the former owner of the Hudson Tavern which closed last year, argued that a cannabis dispensary in his former business wouldn’t fit in the neighborhood, and alleged that Story didn’t reach out to anyone there as well.

“Is it not abundantly obvious that this couldn’t be a more different landscape?” he said. “Should we be accused of stigmatizing cannabis if we believe locating a recreational cannabis dispensary in a residential building in the most densely populated residential neighborhood in Hoboken isn’t a proper land usage?”

“To be clear, I am not against permitting cannabis dispensaries from operating in Hoboken,” he later said. ”Rather my concern is all about location.”

Another resident, Andrea Aronoff, who said that she would live right above the dispensary, cited what she said were a number of armed robberies at dispensaries across the country, “not trying to be dramatic or fearmonger,” but because she had “a very serious concern about the danger that the dispensary poses to the public health, safety and welfare.”

“I do not want to have to worry about a break in late at night while I sleep in my bed and be fearful that an armed confrontation downstairs might lead to a stray bullet penetrating the walls of my apartment,” she said.

Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher, who represents the 2nd Ward where Story could be and has been an outspoken critic of them, argued that the board has “literally been given no information” and that they didn’t have “real testimony” on the amount of people that are expected.

“You just don’t have enough information, and if you think otherwise, I’d love to know what information you’re going to base it on, because we’ve not heard any testimony whatsoever that should give this board any confidence that this operator is going to be able to manage the crowds in this area,” she continued.

Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher, who represents the 2nd Ward where Story Dispensary could be, has been one of their most outspoken critics. Photo by Mark Koosau.

Before the Planning Board voted, Carlson noted a number of conditions for Story, including having no consumption on site without further approval by the board, seeking a loading zone and providing proof of required parking and maintaining said parking.

After the commissioner made their own suggestions for conditions, and the clock having gone past 1 a.m. they voted unanimously 8-0 to approve Story Dispensary, capping off a five month long chapter for them as they now seek to get City Council support to get full local approval, as well as state approval.

Lee Vartan, an attorney for Story, thanked the Planning Board in an email to the Hudson Reporter for approving them, “consistent with the unanimous approvals from the County Planning Board and Hoboken Cannabis Review Board, despite the irrelevant and sometimes blatantly false statements made during the filibustering by our condo neighbors.”

“Ultimately, those neighbors – as the broader community already realizes – will end up appreciating the beneficial impact of a high-end retail store with restricted hours replacing a bar with sometimes loud patrons until 2 a.m.,” he said.

Cabalar told the Hudson Reporter in an email on behalf of the condo association that they were “ultimately disappointed in the decision because there are several conditions of approval that were not met.”

“[…]the association raised legitimate credibility concerns with respect to the applicant’s testimony, which was acknowledged by members of the board who expressed concern about the applicant’s lack of transparency, but were ultimately not given appropriate consideration as demonstrated by the vote to approve,” he said.

Hoboken residents voted by a 5-to-1 margin in the 2020 statewide referendum to legalize marijuana in New Jersey, with 21,056 casting yes votes and 4,049 voting no.

For updates on this and other stories, check hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Mark Koosau can be reached at mkoosau@hudsonreporter.com or his Twitter @snivyTsutarja.