After working group drafts downtown North Adams pot policy, some ask how restrictive is too restrictive

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NORTH ADAMS — In the heart of the Steeple City, retail marijuana may be a tough sell.

Draft regulations heading to the City Council explicitly include "places of worship" in the list of spaces that require a 500-foot buffer zone around any retail marijuana businesses.

With the plethora of churches, schools and youth-centered community organizations based downtown, it appears the regulations would cut marijuana entirely out of the downtown.

The downtown area in question includes the north side of Main, Eagle, Holden and Marshall streets. (The south side of Main Street falls under the control of the North Adams Redevelopment Authority, which has not set standards for marijuana businesses.)

The draft, which was agreed to Wednesday by the city's retail marijuana zoning working group, leaves available commercial areas along Curran Memorial Highway and State Road for licensed marijuana establishments — as long as they are licensed and receive a special permit approval from the Planning Board — though even those roads have a number of parks and buildings that require a 500-foot buffer.

The City Council and Planning Board will have to decide if the draft is too restrictive based on state guidelines, according to Community Development Director Larysa Bernstein.

"It is legal and we're not questioning the legality of it," Bernstein said.

Marijuana would be banned in the city's residential and rural zones. Retail operations would be permitted in the city's commercial and industrial zones, while nonretail operations like manufacturing and testing facilities would be limited to industrial zones. There would be no on-site consumption.

The draft regulations will now be sent to the City Council, which is expected to review the proposal and hold another public hearing.

Mayor Thomas Bernard formed the working group and proposed a timeline that aims to have marijuana zoning ordinances passed in time for the issuing of state licenses in April.

The draft proposed by the working group calls for a 500-foot buffer zone around "playgrounds, youth services programs, day care centers, youth sports facilities, dance schools and gymnastic schools," and the group agreed to add places of worship on Wednesday.

The addition prompted a discussion about how restrictive the city should be in its downtown.

"I take issue with that because you can walk by any number of establishments downtown where they serve drinks," group member Ross Jacobs said.

Jacobs said he understood the concerns about the normalization of marijuana and its potential impact on youth, but disagreed with it and noted the plethora of establishments that serve or sell alcohol downtown.

"If we are going to be welcoming to this business," he said, "immediately starting off stigmatizing it by ordinance I don't think is necessarily the right way to go."

Jacobs argued that the attitude toward a substance should be addressed by parents and community organizations, not via city regulations.

North Adams Public Schools Superintendent Barbara Malkas, a member of the group, said she wanted places of worship included, but not because of concerns about normalization.

"We have churches in the community that run recovery groups," Malkas said. "I would like to see that language included as a nod to understanding that people who are entering into recovery for all substances, that we're also being sensitive to that community."

Group member and City Councilor Jason LaForest advocated that marijuana regulations mirror those for liquor and package stores, which include the church and synagogue buffer zone.

Annie Rodgers, also a group member, said she's currently part of building a church community near two bars.

"We look at it as an opportunity, not to necessarily proselytize, but to be in an area of the community that doesn't have an existing church," Rodgers said. "Obviously we're not uncomfortable being in an area where there's bars."

"It almost seems like a lot of people who made these public comments are trying to relitigate the legalization [of marijuana]," Jacobs said.

William Meranti, the city's building inspector and a member of the group, disagreed, and said the public input was clear.

"The vast majority of them did not want to see it on Main Street. Is that unreasonable?" he asked. "It's one zone in the city."

Bernstein said the city received letters both asking that the city keep marijuana out of the downtown and letters that specifically advocated it be placed downtown.

The working group again considered the limit on the number of marijuana businesses in the city, an issue that came up at last week's public hearing.

The number of licensed marijuana businesses in the city would be limited, but the number could fluctuate under what members of the group acknowledged is a "convoluted" set of guidelines.

The total businesses in the city could not exceed 50 percent of its number of package and liquor licenses, which stands at six. Thus, the limit would be three marijuana businesses.

However, under the state's guidelines, at least 20 percent of the liquor licenses need to be able available for retail marijuana businesses, which in the city's case would round up to two.

Thus, if the first three licensed marijuana businesses in North Adams were not retail-based, the city would still have to set aside two licenses to retail businesses. In such a scenario, there could be as many as five total marijuana businesses in the city.

Adam Shanks can be reached at ashanks@berkshireeagle.com, at @EagleAdamShanks on Twitter, or 413-496-6376.


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