North Adams marijuana policy proposal: Pot shops would be allowed in commercial, industrial zones

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NORTH ADAMS — The city has moved another step closer to enacting a set of marijuana zoning regulations.

As the drafting of marijuana regulations continues, the wind continues to blow in the direction of trusting the city Planning Board's judgment.

After a joint public hearing with the City Council on Monday, the Planning Board recommended the council adopt largely the same language supported by the council's Public Safety Committee.

Under the proposal, licensed retail marijuana businesses would be allowed to operate in commercial and industrial zones if they receive a special permit from the Planning Board. Other marijuana businesses, such a testing or growing facilities, would be limited to industrial zones and also require board approval.

The language in question states that a marijuana business must be "at least 500 feet from any school, day care facility or similar facility where organized youth activities occur."

The Planning Board also recommended the addition of language after that paragraph that states, "the special permit granting authority may modify or waive this requirement."

The debate throughout the drafting process has been largely centered on how restrictive the regulations should be, specifically in the downtown business district.

The recommendation is a notable departure from the draft brought to the City Council by the mayor's North Adams Retail Marijuana Zoning Working Group in January, which was more specific about institutions that would require a 500 foot buffer, including places of worship.

"This gives more capacity for the Planning Board to actually address issues as they come up, while the other language really did get in to nitty-gritty detail," explained City Councilor Benjamin Lamb, who chairs the Public Safety Committee.

The Public Safety Committee recommended striking "places of worship" from the working group's proposal, and the Planning Board agreed.

Lamb said the Public Safety Committee recommended removing the "places of worship" restriction in an effort to more closely resemble the city's ordinances for alcohol sales.

"The place of worship component was not in the alcohol piece but was added onto this [marijuana proposal]," Lamb said, adding that it "wasn't really necessary. "

Planning Board member Brian Miksic questioned the necessity of the entire paragraph, instead leaving each proposal to the planning board to determine if a marijuana business proposal meshes with the "character of the neighborhood."

"Geographically speaking, we're a small community, and so 500 feet circles around points covers a lot in the city. I think that's literally what the Planning Board is for, is to help make those decisions," Miksic said.

But Planning Board Chair Michael Leary preferred the Public Safety Committee's language.

"I think if you remove this entire section — the planning board can only vote on a special permit based on what's in the ordinance," Leary said.

Councilor Paul Hopkins, a longtime former planning board member, agreed with Leary, saying that denying an application for failing to meet the "character" of the neighborhood is "a much higher bar to clear."

The council will take up the draft at its March 13 meetings and is expected to hold a final vote on proposed ordinances on March 27.

Only a handful of residents spoke on Monday.

Dan Randall, a pastor for the New Hope United Methodist Church, asked about removing "places of worship" from the ordinance.

"Places of worship have significant events for youth and children, how is that different than schools or day cares?" Randall said, adding that he was not speaking on behalf of a congregation or advocating a position.

Lamb said the proposal would leave it to the Planning Board to determine.

"Our sense was that this ordinance as we recommended it would allow for them to make that decision," Lamb said, adding that factors like hours of operation can be taken into consideration. "It really does give them the flexibility to make these decisions in an ongoing basis."

Ross Jacobs, a member of the working group, argued on Monday that there is no proven link between the presence of retail marijuana businesses and addiction.

"Attempts to use zoning as a backdoor to undo the will of the voters by marginalizing and stigmatizing the incoming business that would be productive and contributing members of our city's business community would be counterproductive to our city's overall financial health," Jacobs said.

Wendy Penner, the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition's director of prevention and wellness, reiterated her longstanding opposition to siting marijuana in the city's downtown.

Penner argued that early use of drugs and alcohol puts young people at greater risk of addiction, and that "we have to look to the environment in which our youth make decisions," one of which is the community.

"They're getting important messages about the normalization and their own use of substances," Penner said.

Adam Shanks can be reached at ashanks@berkshireeagle.com, at @EagleAdamShanks on Twitter, or 413-629-4517.


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