BELEN—More than a year after the Belen City Council placed a moratorium on applications for cannabis retail businesses in the Hub City, they approved a local law Monday limiting the number of that type of businesses to seven in the city.
In November 2022, the city council decided to halt approving applications as the city looked into capping the number of cannabis business licenses depending on the city’s population. At the time when the council approved the resolution, the city had five cannabis shops in operation, with two applications that had already been approved.
The council voted 3-1 to revise the cannabis ordinance Monday, with outgoing Councilor Danny Bernal Jr. voting against the motion made by Councilor Steve Holdman. Councilors Tracy Armijo, Holdman and Frank Ortega voted in favor.
Prior to the vote, Bernal made a motion to approve the ordinance without a limitation on the number of cannabis retail stores in the city. Bernal’s motion died for a lack of a second.
While the ordinance limits the number of cannabis retailers in the city, the amended ordinance does allow those already in business to have a cannabis consumption area, be a cannabis courier, be a cannabis manufacturer, have a cannabis testing laboratory, integrated cannabis micro-business and vertically integrated cannabis establishment.
Mayor Robert Noblin said the city would not stand in the way of these already-established businesses to have these types of facilities if they obtained the respective licenses from the state.
“I feel that is an area that is going to be self-limiting based on water consumption,” Noblin said Monday. “Growers are going to be limited by space and water consumption … and might have a benefit outside the city limits.”
A new cannabis retail shop may open when an established business license is not renewed or it’s revoked, or the establishment closes. A license would be replaced through a lottery number draw process.
During Monday’s council meeting, Bernal questioned his fellow city councilors what the reasoning was behind limiting the number of cannabis retail shops to seven.
Noblin said during the last workshop in November, they were informed some municipalities were capping it based on population. He reminded the councilor when the moratorium was placed in 2022, the city had five shops open with two more licenses that had been approved.
“When we did this, my perception was that it was one per 1,000 population,” Holdman said.
Bernal said he didn’t agree it should be based on population because he wasn’t presented with no data behind the number.
“All 7,000 people who live here are not over 21 (years),” Bernal said. “It kind of confuses me why we would choose such an arbitrary number.”
Ortega said when he voted for the moratorium, he too wanted to limit the number of cannabis retail based on the population of the city.
“There is some data from the state,” Ortega said. “Some stores are closing down because they’re not making enough. I also thought it was for safety reasons. At the time, we didn’t know enough … and I wanted to make sure we were able to handle it.”
Bernal said he wondered why a small government of a small town is acting like big brother.
“Why are we trying to limit the businesses in town?” Bernal asked. “Is it for the safety of the businesses? I believe when asked the last time, the chief said he didn’t see a particular rise in crime because of the cannabis establishments.”
Bernal said growing up in Belen, all he would hear was the mayor and council are anti-business, which encouraged him to run for office.
“Right now, what I’m seeing, if we establish an ordinance that limits people’s freedom to open a business when they want to open up a business, to me that sends a clear and strong message that, ‘We don’t want you. We don’t want your business, and we don’t want anyone to invest in the city.’”
Bernal warned the council the public will perceive their vote as being anti-business. The councilor, who decided not to run for a second term, said the market, not the city, should decide whether a business will be successful or not.
Noblin told Bernal he appreciated the councilor’s comments, saying the city and the community had concerns when recreational cannabis became legal and how they would handle it.
“This has come back to us over and over and this is the eighth revision of this ordinance,” Noblin said. “We’re at a point where I think the establishments that are here have become established …”
The mayor said the city was always told to treat cannabis establishments much like business that sell liquor, which are more regulated and restricted at the state level. He also told the council he understands the Legislature may take up new cannabis laws in January.
During the public hearing portion of the meeting, the majority of people spoke against the limitations in the ordinance.
“Me and my partners have decided to try establishing our cannabis business, but the city of Belen is restricting us and it’s not fair to entrepreneurs,” Paul Silva said. “You’re holding back Belen from its full potential.”
Angel Guilez also said he was against limiting the number of cannabis businesses in the Hub City.
“This is new to everyone, and it’s a rapidly growing industry,” Guilez said. “The pros of what we would do is bring more jobs and more education.”
Wayne Trujillo, who owns a local concrete company, told the council the limit on cannabis retail was “ridiculous,” saying it wasn’t the council’s responsibility to say who could and couldn’t do business in Belen.
“It’s not your job to say who can open up,” Trujillo said. “Are you going to put a cap on concrete and landscape businesses? Are you going to put a cap on funeral homes?”
Ortega admitted in the beginning of the process, they didn’t have a lot of information, but did the best they could.
“We are always open for business. This was different to us. It was an illegal drug,” Ortega said. “It’s our job to make sure to do what’s right for the city.”
Clara Garcia is the editor and publisher of the Valencia County News-Bulletin.
She is a native of the city of Belen, beginning her journalism career at the News-Bulletin in 1998 as the crime and courts reporter. During her time at the paper, Clara has won numerous awards for her writing, photography and typography and design both from the National Newspaper Association and the New Mexico Press Association.