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Plans for marijuana growing operation derailed by Springfield City Council

Springfield City Hall
Paul Tuthill
/
WAMC
The marijuana growing facility proposed by Page Cultivate LLC produced questions about Springfield City Hall's process for screening and picking marijuana businesses. The city auditor found the process was sound.

City attorney warns lawsuit is likely over denial of special permit

A marijuana cultivation facility proposed in Springfield, Massachusetts has failed to gain a necessary permit from the City Council.

The 33,000 square-foot, $20 million marijuana growing operation proposed in East Springfield was denied a special permit by the City Council. The project proposed by Page Cultivate LLC had caused controversy since it first surfaced almost a year ago – a controversy that has delayed the expansion of the burgeoning legal cannabis industry into the state’s third-largest city.

The vote on a motion to approve the special permit was 6-4 with two Councilors abstaining. Because a two-thirds majority is required for approval, the special permit was rejected.

From the time the developers first made the request for a special permit last year, unsubstantiated allegations of favoritism and special treatment dogged the project. The claims centered on a change in the site plan for the project that was made after it had been submitted for consideration by the city administration. The original plan had the facility within 250 feet of a residential building, which would have violated the city’s marijuana zoning law.

Critics, including a would-be rival for a marijuana cultivation license in Springfield, cried foul. City Councilor Kateri Walsh said she believed Page Cultivate got a break not afforded others.

“It’s clear to me that I do think some special preference was given and I don’t really like that,” Walsh said during a public hearing on the special permit last February.

But prior to Monday night’s final vote on the special permit request, City Solicitor John Payne advised Councilors that the site plan change was legal.

“It is not a major issue,” said Payne. “It is more ministerial than anything substantive.”

Former City Solicitor Ed Pikula had likewise advised the Council that site plan changes of the type made by Page Cultivate were routine in the timeline of almost every building project.

Payne warned Councilors that if the special permit was rejected, a lawsuit could follow.

“Should we fail to allow this to proceed -- the special permit to be approved -- based on this particular issue, we will face liability and, quite frankly, I think it will be somewhat difficult to defend,” Payne stated.

City Councilor Melvin Edwards implored his colleagues to heed the advice of the city’s lawyers.

“I respectfully ask that my colleagues please consider the possible cloud of litigation which clearly hangs over this vote tonight,” Edwards said.

Philip Silverman, an attorney for Page Cultivate, did not respond to requests for comment.

The marijuana growing operation was expected to employ 50 people with projected tax revenue to the city of $1 million annually. The project had been endorsed by the East Springfield Neighborhood Council.

The controversy about Page Cultivate led to an internal audit of City Hall’s marijuana business application and selection process. The city auditor ultimately concluded it was fair and above board.

During the auditor’s roughly six month investigation, the Council did not vote on any special permit requests for marijuana businesses. It has recently approved several retail dispensary permits, a cultivation facility, and a delivery business.

There are just three marijuana businesses currently open in Springfield out of more than 230 statewide.

The Cannabis Control Commission reported last week that legal marijuana is now a $3 billion annual business in Massachusetts.

Paul Tuthill is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief. He’s been covering news, everything from politics and government corruption to natural disasters and the arts, in western Massachusetts since 2007. Before joining WAMC, Paul was a reporter and anchor at WRKO in Boston. He was news director for more than a decade at WTAG in Worcester. Paul has won more than two dozen Associated Press Broadcast Awards. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for reporting on veterans’ healthcare for WAMC in 2011. Born and raised in western New York, Paul did his first radio reporting while he was a student at the University of Rochester.