A medical marijuana dispensary business has scrapped a proposal to take over a longtime diner in Laurel, ending a months-long campaign from preservationists who hoped to keep the diner in the city’s historic district.
Pure Hana Synergy dropped plans to put the dispensary at the site of the Tastee Diner along U.S. 1, where it has sat for more than four decades. A group of diner enthusiasts and residents began a campaign weeks ago aimed at trying to stop the dispensary from buying the location, arguing that the unique diner and its history should be saved.
In December, the city’s planning commission unanimously rejected Pure Hana’s request to take over the site, saying there already were two dispensaries in the area — one in Laurel and another in Howard County.
The move by Pure Hana came at a Thursday meeting of the city’s Board of Appeals, surprising many who were involved in the campaign since last year.
Richard Reed, an attorney for Pure Hana, said the company withdrew its application for a special exception to operate the dispensary after listening to the community.
“The people have spoken and we have heard,” he said at the hearing, which had about 30 attendees — many of whom were expected to testify in support of the diner. “For that reason and out of respect for the community’s wishes, we have decided to withdraw the special exception application.”
Several people in the audience applauded. The hearing ended in less than 10 minutes and no one else testified.
Still, it wasn’t clear whether the diner — with its roughly 30 cooks, managers and servers — will continue to operate.
Gene Wilkes, its longtime owner, indicated in December that the Laurel diner’s days were numbered. He wouldn’t discuss his plans at the time, but said, “I’m 75.”
“Everything ends,” Wilkes said. “This is the end for Laurel. It’s probably not going to remain a diner. It’s time for me to cut back.”
Wilkes said he’s had the property on the market for five years. He also owns Tastee Diner locations in Bethesda and Silver Spring.
In December, Francesca DeMauro-Palminteri, the founder of Pure Hana, said its purchase of the diner site and an adjacent motel was contingent upon approval from the city’s planning commission to open a marijuana dispensary. She said she searched the Washington region for two years for a location for the business.
Reed didn’t say Thursday what Pure Hana will do next.
“It’s painful, but we thank the community for teaching us and telling us honestly what their true feelings and priorities are,” he said.
He told Laurel officials that Pure Hana would continue to explore sites and is “still determined to be in your fair city.” He said the company hopes “to be back before you sometime in the near future,” but gave no further details.
Laurel Board of Appeals Chairwoman Margaret Chenault said Thursday that the dispensary’s proposal was a “whole new area that is being explored and has a lot of controversy about it.”
“I am sure it took a great deal of decision-making to arrive at your current decision,” Chenault added. “We wish you well.”
Laurel, with a population about 25,000, is about 20 miles northeast of downtown Washington.
Activists say the diner is unique for its stainless steel exterior, one of a handful of existing building exteriors made by Comac, a manufacturer in the 1950s.
The diner’s current iteration is its third at the location. 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.
Richard Friend, who grew up in Laurel and started an online petition to save the diner that had more than 2,300 signatures, called it “a legacy of Laurel.” The experience has shown that “a lot of people care deeply about saving the building,” he said.
Still, he said, there’s an uphill battle to keep it in the city’s historic district.
Karen Lubieniecki, chairwoman of the Laurel Historical Society, whose group was active in fighting to keep the diner open, said she was happy the pot dispensary business decided to move on.
“We now have the opportunity to hopefully work with Mr. Wilkes and the city of Laurel and find a way to save and preserve this important part of American history,” she said.