ITHACA, N.Y.—The only non-voting discussion topic at Wednesday night’s Planning and Economic Development meeting was cannabis retail, amid an agenda that was packed to the gills.

Most of us realize the head shops, many of which are downtown, aren’t just selling ‘decorative glasswork,’ but cannabis itself is a different matter. It’s no longer just paraphernalia sales, we’re now talking about the drug itself, which as of last month has been approved for recreational use by adults in the state of New York. It’ll take about 12-18 months to be fully implemented.

Within the new New York State law, municipalities may pass local laws and ordinances governing the time, place and manner of licensed adult-use cannabis retail dispensaries. Municipalities may also opt out, but otherwise they will be legally obligated to allow reasonable accommodation for retail by 2023. With projections of $350 million in annual tax revenue and 30,000-60,000 jobs, it’s an economic argument vs. social mores—and Deputy Director of Economic Development Tom Knipe noted that people have been reaching out to the city to ask about opening shops in Ithaca.

Last fall, in anticipation of the passage of the state law, city staff started working on policy analysis and preliminary recommendations for management of cannabis retail in Ithaca, with the help of two Cornell MBA students. Recommendations from analysis of similar cities and community outreach include updating zoning language to explicitly state where cannabis retail operations are allowed, 500-foot buffers to keep them away from schools and playgrounds, a hard cap on the number allowed in the city, local licensing like a Special Use Permit, entrepreneurship programs for underprivileged groups, and potential restrictions like hours, signage, and no drive-thrus (I didn’t even know this was a thing until I looked it up).

For those of us who don’t partake, the expected tax revenue from sales is the main positive—in the range of $162K-$270K annually for the city and a similar amount for the county after five years of shop openings and reaching that local market equilibrium.

Knipe did a quick presentation of the city’s cannabis retail study—as well as the ideas above, initial suggestion would allow a maximum 12 cannabis retail shops in the city, with no more than two allowed on the Commons. The question before PEDC was if they wanted city planning staff to move forward with revising zoning to accommodate cannabis retail in certain commercial zones and ask how they felt about the proposed regulations.

The board was generally supportive of the regulations as proposed, though Fleming thought it was odd that cannabis wouldn’t be allowed to be sold at bars. That is a state law, according to Knipe.

“It definitely makes sense to come forward with some form of guidance,” said councilor and PEDC member Cynthia Brock (D-1st Ward). “I like the idea of a buffer between dispensaries, a ‘saturation limit.’ You don’t want one area with a dense population.”

Brock noted that only the east end of the Commons would be eligible due to the nearby location of the New Roots Charter School, though Knipe said the state’s language was vague in the case of a mixed-use building with other tenants. With the favorable reception, the Planning Department will develop the proposal out further for a return to PEDC at a date in the near future.

Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at