Proposed medical marijuana dispensary at former KFC site rejected by Pittsfield ZBA

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PITTSFIELD — Siding with several neighborhood home and business owners, the Zoning Board of Appeals Wednesday night denied a special permit for a medical marijuana dispensary at a defunct fast food restaurant on East Street.

The ZBA unanimously rejected plans by Happy Valley Compassion Center to convert the former Kentucky Fried Chicken into a medicinal marijuana shop that would have been open 12 hours every day serving about 130 patients, according to the proponent.

Last week, the Pittsfield Community Development Board unanimously endorsed the project, but the five-member ZBA agreed with those who live and work in the area the dispensary doesn't belong along a high profile commercial strip. Opponents also were concerned about the facility being a half mile from Pittsfield High School and even closer to a day care center, martial arts school and residences.

"I really believe we have to listen to them as they know the community," said ZBA member Miriam Maduro.

Happy Valley was seeking to become Pittsfield's third locally-permitted, state-sanctioned medical marijuana retail operation.

The Greenfield-based company plans to cultivate and process the marijuana at a facility in Bernardston, out of a former restaurant in the community north of Greenfield. Happy Valley is still awaiting a provisional license for its entire project from the state Department of Public Health, which has the final say on how many dispensaries and cultivation centers will operate in the commonwealth.

Two other groups that previously obtained a special permit from Pittsfield — Heka Health Inc. and Khem Organics Inc. — also have received provisional certificates of registration from the DPH.

Heka Health has proposed a facility in an existing building at 531 Dalton Ave., and Khem Organics wants a dispensary in a building at 501 Dalton Ave. Both companies have obtained provisional certificates in two additional communities.

A fourth nonprofit expected to seek a special permit, Manna Wellness, plans a new building for a dispensary on Callahan Drive. Currently, Northampton has the only medical marijuana dispensary in Western Massachusetts.

President of Haddad Motor Group, George Haddad, who has two dealerships near the former KFC echoed the opposition's sentiments.

"I think it's important to have a dispensary, but not on East Street. It's not good for the character of the neighborhood," he said. "It doesn't belong in a highly commercial area."

Michael O'Keefe lives two addresses down from the proposed dispensary.

"I certainly don't want it as my next door neighbor for all the stuff that goes with it," he said. "We dealt with Kentucky Fried Chicken and I think this will be worse.

The ZBA public hearing began innocently enough with members asking about traffic impact, security and the clientele they would serve, questions typical of past meetings regarding a dispensary operation.

The developer noted the car trips would by about one-tenth of the 1,300 to 1,500 trips generated by a fast food restaurant.

Happy Valley CEO Jim Counihan cited security measures that included interior/exterior cameras linked to a video recording system and patients needing a DPH issued card to enter the building.

With a state ballot measure recreational marijuana looming, some feared the dispensary would become a full-service retail shop is state law changes. Massachusetts voters will decide during the Nov. 8 election if adult use of the drug should be legalized.

"Although medical use today ... there's the ballot question in [six] weeks that could pass," said attorney and future Pittsfield High School parent, Jesse Cook-Dubin.

If the ballot questions passes, Counihan noted, medical marijuana dispensaries would have "first dibs" to be considered for recreational marijuana sales, but such approval would be an extensive process.

"I don't think medical dispensaries are going to be adult dispensaries overnight," he said.

The recreational marijuana referendum comes four years after the state's electorate supported the production and sale of medical marijuana used to treat chronic medical conditions.

Contact Dick Lindsay at 413-496-6233.


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