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Debate Continues In Springfield Over Proposed Marijuana Store Rules

Marijuana is dispensed from a jar

    A moratorium on marijuana stores in the largest city in western Massachusetts has been extended until the end of November. 

    The Springfield City Council has voted to extend for two months the moratorium that was due to expire at the end of September, as councilors grapple over writing  zoning regulations to govern the burgeoning marijuana industry.

    City Councilor Mike Fenton is lobbying neighborhood councils to help him block proposed regulations he claims lack adequate protections for city residents.

   "I think you are going to see, at least the opportunity, for retail marijuana facilities to be proposed in locations that are densely populated with residents; single-,two-, three-family homes," said Fenton.

    In addition to not requiring a buffer zone around residential properties, he said another concern is the regulations that were given initial approval on a 7-3 vote by the City Council last month do not require adult-use marijuana stores to have off-street parking.

    Councilors voted to cap the number of retail marijuana stores at 15 and restrict the shops to only 58 streets within business or industrial zones.  But pot stores could be adjacent to houses in the business districts.

   Fenton contacted about 20 neighborhood and civic organizations to invite representatives to a public informational meeting he is hosting today at 5 p.m. at the East Springfield Neighborhood Council building on Carew Street.  Based on responses received, Fenton said he expects 75-100 people to show up tonight.

   Because all of the towns adjacent to Springfield have banned marijuana businesses entirely, pot shops that eventually open in the city will see a very strong demand, Fenton believes.

   "So, I think it is much more appropriate to have them in areas with sufficient off-street parking in strip malls, industrial areas, commercial and business zones that are sufficiently set back  from houses and have requisite parking to accomodate these uses," Fenton said in an interview.

   In researching zoning regulations written in other communities in western Massachusetts, Fenton said he found Springfield’s proposed rules are among the least restrictive.  Holyoke limits the shops to industrial areas. Amherst requires a setback from residences.  Chicopee bans shops near houses, parks, and daycare centers.  State law already imposes a buffer zone around schools.

  "We have to be thoughtful here in Springfield about what we are doing for this industry and the standards we are going to set," said Fenton.

  Springfield City Council President Orlando Ramos, who voted for the proposed adult-use marijuana zoning regulations, said there are adequate safeguards that assure pot shops will not “pop up randomly between houses.”

  " This is a business and it should be treated as a business, and from that point of view I think it was the right decision not to have a proximity restriction from a residence," said Ramos. 

  Segregating the businesses into industrial and commercial parts of the city, Ramos argues, defeats the purpose of the voter-approved state law to make marijuana easily available for adults.

" That would not fare well for the people who voted for it, and it would not do any good in terms of killing the black market, which was one of the goals ( of the voter-approved law)," said Ramos.  " Once we have legalized marijuana ( for sale) in Springfield, the hope is there will not be a black market after that."

  A final vote by the City Council on the proposed zoning regulations for adult-use marijuana is tentatively scheduled on Sept. 25th.  It requires a two-thirds vote by the 13-member council to enact a zoning regulation.

Marijuana sales have been legal in Massachusetts since July 1st, but so far no pot shops have opened anywhere in the state.

Cannabis Control Commission Chairman Steve Hoffman said Tuesday on WGBH he expects some initial final licenses to be issued in “the next few weeks to a month or so.”

The first retail stores to open are expected to be co-located at existing medical marijuana dispensaries.

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