SALEM — The City Council has given way to allowing recreational pot shops to sell downtown, as well as in business highway zones after a marathon, controversy-filled meeting Thursday night that came one vote shy from leaving the city unprotected from recreational marijuana sale controls this coming July.
All zoning-related votes will require a second procedural vote to affirm the decision in two weeks. But after 10 votes taken on Thursday and several others before them, the city's recreational marijuana zoning package has been approved to take effect later this year.
The city will be able to issue no more than four licenses, and it has been presumed by city officials that one would be taken up by Alternative Therapies Group on Grove Street. The business opened the state's first medical marijuana dispensary a couple years ago and is entitled to adding recreational sales.
The bulk of the work, and the arguments that played out Thursday night, focused more on where such licensed pot shops would be allowed.
Most of that debate centered on areas zoned B2, or "business highway" - areas can be found along Highland Avenue, Bridge Street and several other areas. But with the zone possibly getting cut, one business came forward as a possible victim to that change.
“We’ve been looking to set up a presence in the North Shore for several years now,” said Aidan O’Donovan, chief operating officer of Natural Selections. “Last year, we had the displeasure of participating with the licensing process in Lynn, which was incredibly opaque.”
The business, based on the address two speakers gave, is looking at 207 Highland Ave., a building to the immediate north of Hawthorne Square. The property is on the backside of Market Basket.
O’Donovan, speaking moments after managing partner Brandon Banks, said conversations with city officials seemed to indicate B2 was on the table, and that the downtown area was “the controversial area in question.”
“We’re just asking to be given the chance,” O’Donovan said, “to not be excluded from making an application, based on these last-minute changes made by the subcommittee.”
Councilors heatedly debated reopening B2, which would allow Natural Selections to move forward. The discussion was complicated by a push to restrict buffer zones that would prevent recreational pot licenses from opening within a defined number of feet from specific landmarks.
State law, and the local ordinance as designed at the time, only restricts places from opening within 500 feet of schools. The city’s legal department strongly discouraged increasing the buffer and making it more restrictive than state law. And by increasing it to 1,000 feet around schools (as was proposed) and not adding B2 would put intense pressure on the city’s downtown district, according to Driscoll.
Ward 2 City Councilor Christine Madore added that expanding the buffer would effectively cut out B4, a wholesale and automotive zone with areas along Canal Street, Jackson Street and other areas.
Ultimately, votes were taken — but getting there wasn't easy. The marijuana discussion alone took 2 1/2 hours to play out from first committee report to final votes.
"For the life of me, I can't understand why we'd take B2 out," said Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll. "Why would you take business areas off the map? Why would you take Vinnen Square off the map? Those are commercial areas. This is a commercial use, and I hope that's something that will be given due consideration."
Councilor-at-large Arthur Sargent, however, called B2 a "tough situation." As he noted, Restaurant Row at Salem Willows is zoned B2.
"I will guarantee you," Driscoll said, "there will not be retail marijuana sales on Salem Willows."
Ward 7 City Councilor Steve Dibble pushed for several amendments to increase buffers to 1,000 feet and add protections. Among those that passed were a 1,000-foot buffer on all college or university property in Salem and a 500-foot buffer on churches and funeral homes. A later amendment to increase the buffer on schools from 500 feet to 1,000 failed, as did an effort from Dibble to put a 1,000-foot buffer on playgrounds.
"We just voted twice against our younger children at our schools, and our younger children at our playgrounds, but we're giving protection to our older children at the university," Dibble said. "I'm going to have to vote no against this ordinance, with the B2 being added back in without the protect our youngest children."
That announcement came with the risk of the entire zoning package failing if two more councilors voted against it. Zoning votes require eight members to approve the measure, and the body was down a member with an illness-related absence from Ward 5 City Councilor Josh Turiel. With three no votes, only seven could vote up.
It was noted by City Clerk Cheryl LaPointe that should the zoning fail, it would be two years before it could be reintroduced — meaning the city would go into July 1 without zoning protections guiding where shops could open up.
"I can't even begin to tell you how dumbfounded I am by his remarks," Ward 1 City Councilor Bob McCarthy said. "If we fail to do it tonight, we fail to act, shame on this body and shame on everybody who voted the wrong way on this to open up (the licensing season) with no safeguards."
When it came time to actually vote, Dibble announced he was changing sides. Ultimately, it saved the package, as Sargent and Ward 4 City Councilor Tim Flynn voted no on two of the measures.
Sargent, throughout the meeting, stressed his opposition to B2, and Flynn later clarified that he opposed the zoning's influence on Ward 4.
To that end, the process is now winding down in Salem as businesses start considering whether they should apply. But to that end, Councilor-at-large Elaine Milo noted that Salem was blazing a trail.
"To a degree, we're beating up on ourselves, because I don't know anyone on the North Shore who is going through this process," Milo said. "It's frustrating for a lot of people, but in the end, I think it's going to work out and we're going to end up with a good product."