PEABODY — A proposal to identify a small slice of Route 1 as suitable for a medical marijuana dispensary will get its second airing Thursday night when the Planning Board and City Council convene in joint session.
But the plan is already seeing pushback from House Minority Leader Brad Jones, who in a letter to city officials said the area under consideration is too close to a Lynnfield neighborhood. The town is part of Jones’ district.
The zoning proposal, put forward by Mayor Ted Bettencourt, covers a handful of parcels on the northbound side of Route 1, near Holiday Inn and the Route 128 ramps. Councilors last month supported the plan, with the exception of Anne Manning-Martin. She wanted to hold off until state lawmakers hash out regulations for recreational pot, when the effects on existing dispensaries might be clearer.
The plan acts like an overlay district that would only allow medical pot in that particular business zone — away from any city neighborhoods, schools or churches. But in his letter, Jones said if a marijuana facility were to open there, “it would be located within 1,000 square feet of 44 Lynnfield homes.
“The residents of this neighborhood are rightfully concerned about the negative impact the proposed zoning changes would have on their property values and the qualify of life in their community,” he wrote.
Jones also brought up the fact that the new recreational marijuana law opens the door for licensed dispensaries to convert over to retail sales.
“If state regulations are not in place by July 1, 2018, medical marijuana shops can automatically begin selling recreational marijuana, without regulation or a license,” he wrote. A joint committee on marijuana policy, Jones said, has yet to reach consensus on possible tweaks to the 2016 law Massachusetts voters approved last fall.
At the very least, he said, Peabody officials should consider moving the zone to another location, further away from homes.
City Councilor Barry Sinewitz has also expressed concern in recent weeks that the proposal could be considered spot zoning, which is illegal, because it is so constrained to a specific area — or that it would invite legal challenges to that effect.
Bettencourt and City Solicitor Michael Smerczynski have tried to assure councilors they are on solid legal footing.
The mayor had said previously, responding to Manning-Martin’s concerns, that the council can always revisit and tweak the zoning change, if needed, but that shouldn’t forestall action now.
The Planning Board must issue opinions first on all zoning changes, and then the matter will return to the council for a final vote. City Clerk Tim Spanos said he wasn’t sure if the board would seek to issue a recommendation Thursday or continue the matter until its next meeting.
The zoning amendment encompasses four parcels: Bertucci’s, Brothers Kouzina and a gas station, Don’s Power Equipment, and an empty wooded site behind those three parcels.
That latter 2-acre site is developable, and that’s where Bettencourt envisions a marijuana treatment center could be built. The land is also only accessible from Route 1.
Only one dispensary would be allowed and it would be governed by special permit, which is controlled by the council. The conditions outlined in the proposal overlap with many existing state regulations on dispensaries.
Bettencourt said the city would negotiate a host fee agreement, either as a set fee or one dependent on sales.
In addition to notifying planning officials in neighboring communities of the upcoming zoning hearing (as a matter of law), Spanos also included three individuals on that distribution list: Salem resident Gary Nadeau, who owns the old Comcast/Water Works building at 167 Washington St.; Joseph Giannino, a registered lobbyist with the state; and David Miller. Spanos said none of the three explained his interest in the matter.
In 2013, at Bettencourt’s behest, the council agreed to ban medical marijuana facilities from the city. Today, however, the mayor readily admits that zoning prohibition wouldn’t stand up to a legal challenge. That’s in part what has motivated his proposal now.
“I’ve received several calls about companies that are interested in Peabody,” said Bettencourt in a recent interview. And he tells them all the same thing: The city is creating a specific zone for that use.
He said he hasn’t spoken with anyone from a medical pot company that indicated a specific site or agreement was in place.
“But yes, it is a concern,” he said, referring to the possibility of a facility opening up elsewhere if zoning regulations are not passed in a timely manner.
Staff writer John Castelluccio can be reached at 978-338-2677 or firstname.lastname@example.org.