SUNBURY — Northumberland County Commissioners Rick Shoch and Sam Schiccatano extended the contract of a medical marijuana company looking to purchase county land to build a growing facility. It's the third time an extension to purchase the land has been approved.
Parea BioSciences, through its holding company MNK 03 Holdings, intends to purchase 10 acres of land owned by Northumberland County near the new prison in Coal Township for $1.5 million. The majority commissioners originally approved the option in May 2018 and the medical marijuana grower/processor was approved for a license in July 2018.
Nate Wardle, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Health, said on Wednesday the permits for Parea are still pending, but wouldn't go into detail. A representative of Parea said the state approved an extension as well.
The closing date was extended to Sept. 30. Parea has provided the county with a non-refundable $31,000 to hold the property, including an additional $10,000 approved on Wednesday. The commissioners had no discussion during the special meeting that lasted less than two minutes, but Schiccatano offered comments following the meeting.
"I think, with the distractions that occurred in the beginning, that was a hold-up and it's taken longer than anticipated to come up with the finances," he said. "We don't have anyone else interested, and since we get $10,000 every time we give them an extension, I have no problem giving them extra time to come up with the finances. If somebody else is interested in purchasing 10 acres for $1.5 million, they can contact me any time and I will work with them."
The distractions Schiccatano is referencing came from minority Commissioner Kymberley Best for opposing and filing objections against the company and the land purchase. Although she has legally withdrawn her objections, Best voted on Wednesday against the extension and provided a five-page statement to the media detailing her concerns and her intention to encourage an investigation from the Pennsylvania Attorney General.
Among Best's concerns: federal law prohibits growing marijuana in any form on publicly owned land; a marijuana farm is not a suitable neighbor to the county prison, a juvenile rehabilitation center and drug rehabilitation center; discussions have not been held in public; and she believes the road to Parea being declared public is a vehicle for a 2-mill tax increase and additional borrowing — two actions that the county code authorizes when roads are declared public.
Best said the company can avoid enforcement measures in the county agreement by switching to another holding company. She described the agreement as a "lease with an option to buy with absolutely no safeguards or fair market consideration for the county."
The buyer can remain "in possession indefinitely" as long as the commissioners allow it by paying $500 per day, or $15,000 a month, which is the same amount of money that other companies pay to lease portions of the South Campus, Best said.
"The circumstances indicate that the buyers have no intention of closing and the majority commissioners know this," Best said. "Rather, they get what they originally wanted: a de facto lease. As an added bonus to a private company, because the agreement operates in a legal loophole, the property would not go back on the tax rolls... It is very important to note that nothing in the proposed extension prevents the buyers from growing marijuana while in possession of county-owned property."
Parea attorney: 'No reason to rush this'
Judith Cassel, a legal counsel with Cannabis Law PA that represents Parea, said the initial completion deadline from the Department of Health was within six months, but the state agency granted extensions due to roadblocks. They had to have a specific plan of action in order to be approved.
"The Department of Health and the county can allow for additional time to make sure that this is in place in an appropriate and safe manner," said Cassel. "There's no reason to rush this. The county is not losing anything. It is our full intention to close on this property before we grow a single plant or seed. We will purchase the property and have all the security measures in place."
The rumors that Parea does not have the funds to close and build the facility is said "with zero facts," said Cassel. "Some of the structural plans needed to be altered mostly due to the initial delays (with Best). We lost opportunities with some of our contractors, and they needed to book other jobs."
The agreement with the county allows for Parea to be on-site making improvements to the land but they assume the risk if the real estate deal falls through. Gaudenzia Inc., a drug addiction rehabilitation center, had a similar agreement to make renovations or improvements as they waited for lease agreements to be negotiated. The agreement with Gaudenzia was for leasing the property, not to purchase it.
Cassel said Parea officials want to know why Best continues to oppose a private company attempting to bring jobs and revenue to the county.
Schiccatano noted that the $1.5 million could be used toward the purchase of new voting machines as mandated by the state. He expects the costs of such a purchase to be $500,000 or more.