Boston stumbles on pot shop ordinance

Finding a way to have 2 pot shops within a half mile of each other

A CANNABIS SHOP BUFFER ZONE of half a mile approved by Mayor Martin Walsh recently created mayhem at a Zoning Board of Appeal meeting. Why? Because Walsh’s administration approved two cannabis shops less than a half a mile apart, in potential violation of its own city ordinance.

From the get-go, city officials said marijuana companies can seek exceptions to the half-mile buffer zone, but no one did in this instance,

Universal Hub’s Adam Gaffin first described the unprecedented legal kerfuffle the board was placed in when it voted to approve Berkshire Roots for a Meridian Street location, but then took up a proposal from East Boston Bloom LLC, which would be based 0.4 miles away from Berkshire Roots. Berkshire Roots was put at a disadvantage because of where it was on the agenda.

“We are put in a pretty ridiculous situation here,” acting ZBA Chairman Mark Erlich said. Board members voted to defer any action to April 9, when East Boston Bloom LLC must convince the board it merits approval. Before then the board must clarify with the city if such an approval can even be made.

Interestingly, a letter to the editor from Walsh was published in the New York Times last week, touting “equity” and “diversity” in Boston’s retail contract agreements with pot store owners. East Boston Bloom is minority owned.

A city official confirmed at the zoning board meeting that the Walsh administration did in fact sign a host agreement with both applicants, but didn’t offer further advice on how to deal with the matter. The zoning board is the last hurdle before businesses can apply to the Cannabis Control Commission for a license.

The city’s regulation says any pot shop has to be at least a half-mile away from “another existing cannabis establishment,” but, as the Boston Globe points out, what does “existing” mean?

Universal Hub noted that a possible solution, offered by East Boston Blooms, was to interpret the ordinance as the distance between currently existing pot shops, with existing meaning stores that are actually open right now. Obviously, neither location is open.

City Councilor Lydia Edwards said that anyone within the half-mile radius could have the ability to file a lawsuit about the matter, miring shop owners, and potentially the city, in years of litigation. She said at the meeting she wishes “the city had taken leadership” on the issue.

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Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

Walsh administration officials say they’ve interpreted the ordinance to strictly apply to businesses that are established and open. “If, for example, one of the businesses had already been established and opened, the city likely would not have considered another business that was in the half-mile buffer zone,” a spokesperson told the Globe in a statement. “But since neither business was yet established, the city moved forward” with host agreements for each company “to ensure no applicants were held back.”

Now the mayor’s office is saying the zoning board can waive the half-mile requirement and grant variances to both applicants. But the zoning board insists clarity should have been given on the matter, since this is the first time the buffer zone question has been raised.