SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

April 10, 2013

Zoning mulled for pot shops

Peabody might have to declare that facilities are not medical centers

By Alan Burke
Staff writer

---- — PEABODY — When Attorney General Martha Coakley ruled that cities and towns cannot ban medical marijuana facilities, it wasn’t the last word.

Instead, City Councilor Dave Gamache said, the city is facing myriad uncertain alternatives in how it will handle the new law. For example, the key to controlling where such an outlet might be located could be in somehow declaring that a medical marijuana facility is not a medical facility.

City Solicitor Michael Smerczynski is advising the council that as a result of Coakley’s ruling, its previous vote banning the facilities outright cannot be sustained and that it should “examine zoning provisions advisable for Peabody to meet the public planning challenges presented by the act.” He urges that the matter be sent for study to the council’s industrial development subcommittee, chaired by Gamache.

Coakley suggested zoning restrictions in her opinion, Smerczynski said. In addition, she allowed that some communities might want to establish a moratorium, a period to assess the law and “provide controlled development.”

The attorney general’s decision vindicated City Councilor Bob Driscoll, the only member who voted against Mayor Ted Bettencourt’s effort to have a total ban on marijuana stations.

“Haste makes waste,” he said Monday. “It was just an overreaction.”

Now, Driscoll is urging his fellow councilors to carefully consider the zoning, perhaps limiting the marijuana stores to a place adjacent to established medical facilities.

Gamache, however, pointed out that there might be complications arising from any plan to restrict the facilities to certain zones.

“Medical facilities are exempt from zoning,” he said.

Further, there are already medical facilities in every zone in Peabody.

Thus, in order to limit these, it might be necessary to declare that medical marijuana facilities are not medical facilities.

Also unclear, he said, is what provisions can be made for where the marijuana is cultivated. Agriculture in Peabody exceeding 5 acres of land cannot be zoned either, Gamache said.

Finally, he expressed misgivings over the fact that tax exempt medical facilities produce no revenue, thus making the marijuana facilities of limited benefit to Peabody. Even so, Gamache is optimistic that some other communities will welcome them and that the owners of the facility might make donations in lieu of taxes to the local government.

”There’s going to be a lot of money involved,” Gamache said. “There’s got to be.”

For all that, Peabody has already been approached by would-be medical marijuana distributors who see the city’s location at the nexus of several major highways as a big plus.

Councilors initially considered zoning restrictions and discussed the possibility of keeping the facilities in the adult zone on Route 1.

“Nobody’s going to want it downtown,” Gamache said.

The marijuana bill passed via a statewide referendum last November and is ostensibly designed to provide the drug in order to reduce the pain of people suffering serious illnesses. Gamache, who voted for the measure, is among those expressing regret for that support and frustration that the Legislature hasn’t been more assertive in clearing up the confusion surrounding the law.

“I thought it was going to be something reputable,” he said, “for people to find relief from their pain. ... This was never thought out. People wanted cannabis legalized, and they found a way to do it.”

Finally, Gamache wants help from Beacon Hill in settling all this. “I want the Legislature to tell the cities and towns how to go about this.”