Are Limited Pot-shop Zones Really Necessary?

July 15, 2018

Tucked back from the street with an electronic parts supplier and trucking company as neighbors, Patriot Care Lowell -- the city’s only medical marijuana dispensary -- sits in a location that few would describe as bustling.

A number of Massachusetts communities hope to limit these new businesses to similarly discreet and out-of-the-way locations, as the state’s marijuana industry pivots from prescription-only sales to a model that allows commercial shops to sell to any adult over 21.

But is it fair to restrict these businesses to certain low-visibility zones where tax-generating sales could be adversely impacted?

Municipalities across the state are wrestling with the question.

In Billerica, selectmen recently voiced their support for creating one zone for all prospective marijuana establishments. The industrial area within the zone stands in contrast to the well-trafficked commercial blocks where some communities have chosen to allow marijuana sales.

Selectmen say the zone is the right choice as town and state residents learn about the impacts of the new industry.

“It’s all new to us, so we’re trying to feel our way through,” said Selectman Ed Giroux.

The cautious approach was echoed in other communities throughout the region.

In Leominster, Ward 4 City Councilor Mark Bodanza worked with the city’s attorneys and former planning director to draft zoning for recreational marijuana that would limit all cultivation facilities and retailers to industrial zones.

“I don’t think you could be much more restrictive and (not) run afoul of the law,” he said.

But his proposal was rejected by the City Council Monday night. Bodanza said he interpreted the vote as an effort to further limit or even ban recreational marijuana businesses in the city.

Both Bodanza and Billerica Selectman Andrew Deslaurier said zoning proposals in their respective communities are influenced by the split opinion on recreational marijuana among residents.

“I think it’s a reflection of the community’s interest,” said Bodanza.

Both Billerica and Leominster narrowly voted in favor of the 2016 state ballot question legalizing recreational marijuana. In Billerica, 51.5 percent of residents supported the measure; in Leominster, 50.2 percent were in favor.

Billerica’s proposal for siting recreational marijuana operations is based on the town’s medical marijuana zoning ordinance.

The medical marijuana zone passed “by a fair margin,” Deslaurier said. He hopes the zone’s success is predictive of similar support for the recreational marijuana proposal. Officials want to bring the plan to Town Meeting before the local moratorium on these businesses expires at the end of the year.

Deslaurier said the zone offers a key benefit for businesses in its proximity to Route 3.

Bodanza said several industrial zones in Leominster also have good highway access. Patriot Care in Lowell is located a short distance from the Lowell Connector, which feeds into I-495 and Route 3.

Regardless, buffer zones around certain areas, especially places where children gather, would exclude most of Billerica’s Town Center, said Deslaurier.

Kamani Jefferson, a Statehouse lobbyist and president of the Massachusetts Recreational Consumer Council, said he believes fear is driving some local communities in their zoning decisions.

“Do you do this for alcohol?” he said. “Do you do this for tobacco?”

State law requires a buffer zone of 500 feet between schools and any marijuana establishment, although local communities can opt to reduce it. Overall, the bulk of zoning regulations dealing with marijuana facilities is left up to local government.

Jefferson argued that limiting the areas where marijuana establishments can locate could drive up rent prices and, in turn, impact the price of the product. It could also encourage the continuation of black market sales by making the purchase of legal marijuana inconvenient and inaccessible, he said.

Jefferson said zoning restrictions on marijuana facilities vary from state to state. Some Colorado, Oregon and California communities limit these businesses to industrial zone while others allow them to operate in high-foot traffic areas. In fact, the high visibility and easy access to marijuana retailers in the mountain town of Crested Butte, Colorado came up during zoning discussions in Fitchburg.

Massachusetts is no different in this regard, he said. Jefferson pointed to two medical marijuana dispensaries in busy areas owned by Sira Naturals: one on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge and another in Davis Square in Somerville.

Still, the new industry is a source of concern for residential property owners. According to the Boston Globe, Healthy Farms, a Cambridge medical marijuana dispensary, was sued by neighbors who alleged the business lowers their property values. The controversy was among the reasons Bodanza cited for his proposed regulations.

“I’m not sure this thing is something Leominster wants next to its valuable commercial property,” he said, adding he doesn’t know if marijuana businesses decrease property values.

Other communities have taken a less restrictive approach -- with some exceptions

The Fitchburg City Council approved zoning to allow retailers to apply for a special permit to locate in commercial, business and industrial districts.

The exception? Most of Main Street which runs through the downtown business district.

Fitchburg Mayor Stephen DiNatale said the proximity of Longsjo Middle School to downtown and opposition by nearby Fitchburg State University officials influenced the City Council’s decision.

During City Council discussions on the issue, Police Chief Ernest Martineau noted the area’s poor visibility which he said could be a problem, especially if marijuana retailers carry large sums of cash.

The city of Lowell, which allows pot shops in the retail and office park zones, also drew the line at its downtown district.

Director of Development Services Eric Slagle said the City Council was concerned the new industry could have unexpected impacts. Zoning can change, but existing marijuana businesses would be grandfathered in if it was allowed downtown.

“We can’t un-ring that bell,” he said.

As the industry matures, some, like DiNatale, said restrictions might loosen. But not everyone is willing to speculate on the future.

“I can’t predict that at all,” said Giroux, the Billerica selectman. “If you asked me 10 years ago if I thought it would ever be legal, I would have said no.”

Follow Elizabeth Dobbins on Twitter @ElizDobbins