Op-ed Councilor Edwards Reacts to Last Week’s ZBA Pot Shop Debacle

A few weeks before the Boston Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) voted on whether or not to grant Conditional Use Permits to two adult- use marijuana dispensary applicants in East Boston Mayor Martin Walsh wrote a Letter to the Editor in the New York Times. In his letter Walsh said, “Boston is a city that pioneers social change, and we are also a city that does things the right way. Our goal is to set a new national standard for equity in the emerging cannabis industry.”

While Walsh’s Administration signed Host Agreements with both applicants, Berkshire Roots and East Boston Bloom, only one stood to enhance Walsh’s vision.

East Boston Bloom, was the only applicant on last week’s ZBA docket that comprised of local Eastie residents. The team is made up of Latino business owners, Eastie residents and an Iraq War veteran.

East Boston Bloom had all the hallmarks of what Walsh envisions the city’s emerging marijuana industry should be–locally owned, minority owned, veteran owned.

However, Walsh’s vision and the ZBA’s struggles to interpret the city’s zoning on granting permits to proposed adult use facilities are two different things.

The problem last week was that Berkshire Roots, proposed for Meridian Street, and East Boston Bloom, proposed for Maverick Square were .4 miles from one another. The city ordinance states that two ‘licensed’ facilities cannot be within the half-mile ‘buffer zone’ established by the city.

Because neither Berkshire Roots nor East Boston Bloom are so called ‘licensed’ facilities the ZBA was unsure how to proceed.

In the end the ZBA granted a permit to Berkshire Roots while accepting a deferral from East Boston Bloom. East Boston Bloom requested the deferral when it appeared the ZBA was poised to oppose their adult use proposal.

When East Boston Bloom comes back to the ZBA this month, they will most likely argue that because neither they nor Berkshire Roots have a state license from the Cannabis Control Commission the half mile buffer does not yet apply. They will also argue the buffer would only be triggered when one or the other are licensed and open up shop.

The ZBA could also grant a variance for both shops to open within the half-mile buffer.

However, elected officials like City Councilor Lydia Edwards blasted the ZBA for giving Berkshire Roots–an outside company with a lot of capital–a head start to stake their claim in Eastie. She said the ZBA’s actions set a dangerous precedent by allowing outside companies with millions in start up capital to plop down adult-use facilities throughout the neighborhood, create half-mile buffers and not allow local owners like East Boston Bloom to get a foothold in the cannabis industry.

Edwards supported East Boston Bloom at the ZBA hearing and opposed Berkshire Roots.

In a letter to the ZBA after last week’s hearing Edwards wrote, “It came to my office’s attention during the Fall of 2018 that two recreational marijuana dispensaries had proposals before the City’s Office of Emerging Industries (OEI) within a half-mile of one another. I brought this to the attention of both the OEI and Office of Neighborhood Services (ONS) in order to receive clarity for the process and the criteria needed for a host community agreement. The City of Boston ultimately granted both applicants host community agreements despite the half-mile buffer rule the City itself implemented. This has put my community of East Boston in a difficult position as the City attempts to rectify an oversight allowing two recreational marijuana dispensaries within .4 miles of one another.”

Edwards argued that granting variances to the existing zoning code allowing two marijuana dispensaries within a half-mile of each other will set a dangerous precedent in how the city regulates future recreational proposals.

“The City of Boston is sending a message that the rules they put in place for this new industry don’t matter and are not worthy of enforcement,” she said. “Of the two proposals, one is locally owned and financed by a group that includes a veteran and a minority business leader. The locally owned option is transit-oriented, the owners have agreed to an appointment system to ease abutters concerns of traffic, and to remain locally owned and not sell to a large corporation.”

Edwards pointed out that Mayor Walsh has said on multiple occasions that he will ensure a fair roll-out of this industry through an equity lens while acknowledging local concerns.

“As Boston City Councilor, I will always hold the City accountable to their standards and fight to keep East Boston as a neighborhood where residents maintain a high-quality of life,” she said. “It is my recommendation that the City of Boston move forward on an ordinance proposed by Councilor Kim Janey to install an independent commission responsible for ensuring the cannabis industry remains equitable and safe, and shall be responsible for licensing all marijuana establishments. This would prevent any future oversights such as this and allow for a more transparent process of granting marijuana HCAs.”

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