Sometimes, the little guys do win.
In a surprising twist, preservationists and comfort-food aficionados claimed victory Tuesday after city planning commissioners rejected a permit that would have turned Laurel’s beloved Tastee Diner into a medical marijuana dispensary.
About three dozen people in the audience erupted in cheers after the vote.
“If you close the diner, you’re talking about taking away a part of the community and part of its history,” longtime resident Dawn Turney told commissioners. “It’s been a part of the community and it’s always brought us together.”
After locals’ month-long campaign to save the diner, the Laurel Planning Commission voted unanimously against granting the permit to Pure Hana Synergy. The five commissioners noted that there already are two medical marijuana dispensaries nearby — one in neighboring Howard County and another set to open next month in Laurel.
Commissioners went against the recommendation of city staff, which had urged approval of a special exception needed for the dispensary.
Still, the fate of the diner is uncertain.
Gene Wilkes, who has owned the business since the late 1970s and operates Tastee Diner locations in Bethesda and Silver Spring, wouldn’t discuss his plans after the vote, but he indicated the Laurel diner’s days are numbered.
“I’m 75,” he said. “Everything ends. This is the end for Laurel.” He added, “it’s probably not going to remain a diner. It’s time for me to cut back.”
He said he’s had the property on the market for five years.
Pure Hana founder Francesca DeMauro-Palminteri had said its purchase of the site and an adjacent motel was contingent upon the planning commission’s approval. The matter will come before the city’s Board of Appeals on Dec. 20, but Pure Hana officials didn’t say what they’ll do next.
Laurel, population about 25,000, is about 20 miles northeast of downtown Washington, in Prince George’s County. The city has worked for decades to revitalize a portion of Route 1 in the area near the diner.
The commission’s decision was a win for longtime residents and preservationists who scrambled in recent weeks to save the diner after learning of its possible closure. It also was joyful news before the holidays for nearly 30 waitresses, cooks and managers — many of whom have worked there for decades — who will keep their jobs, at least for now.
After the vote, supporters went to the diner for celebratory beers and grilled cheese sandwiches. There were high-fives, hugs and smiles.
“Thanks for all you did to save our place,” cook Charles Durocher said to a group who call themselves the Laurel History Boys and have a regular booth at the diner. Durocher, a Vietnam veteran, said he was relieved to have a reprieve from finding a new job.
Jeff Dudley, 62, a shift manager who used to visit the diner as a kid, said of Tuesday’s vote: “I love it.” He added, “I’m glad to know I still have a job, at least for tomorrow.”
Longtime residents say Laurel’s Tastee Diner is unique for its stainless steel exterior, one of a handful of existing exteriors made by Comac, a manufacturer in the 1950s.
The diner’s current iteration is the third at the site. In the 1930s, it was called the Laurel Diner. In the 1950s, the building was replaced by a structure made to look like an old trolley car. Wilkes bought it in the 1970s and renamed it Tastee Diner.
At Tuesday’s hearing, many of those who testified called the business a “cultural gem.”
“It’s a legacy of Laurel,” said Richard Friend, who grew up in town and started an online petition to save the diner that has more than 2,300 signatures. “It’s part of the city’s fabric.”
Many residents said they weren’t against a medical marijuana dispensary, but they didn’t want it at the diner’s location. Pure Hana officials received a state license more than a year ago to open a dispensary and had looked at more than 200 sites before homing in on the diner.
The company and Laurel Mayor Craig A. Moe had reached an agreement to save some of the diner’s unique features, but preservationists worried that wasn’t enough.
Diner supporters said they hope historical groups can pay to move the diner to a spot along Main Street. Some say they hope a restaurateur will continue to operate it as a diner, or perhaps a coffee and pastry shop or ice cream parlor.
Mitzi R. Betman, chairwoman of the Laurel Planning Commission — who said her family has been in Laurel since the 1800s — said she would “love to see the diner’s building moved and saved” and hopes the city can help to move it. But Moe has said the vacant site where preservationists want to put the diner is likely to become a parking lot.
Patrick Ready, a retired electrician who’s been coming to the diner at least two nights a week for 20 years, said the commission’s vote temporarily saved a piece of Laurel history.
“Everything out there is so virtual these days,” he said. “This place is real.”