Last night, the Zoning Board of Appeal held a hearing on a proposed Medical Marijuana dispensary. After almost 4 hours of presentations, public comments and board discussion, the hearing was continued to tonight, (Thursday, March 24th) at 6:30 pm – 1 hour prior to tonight’s posted meeting.
The board will allow continued public input. Input they are looking for would be new, relevant arguments on rejecting the application or (more likely) conditions to consider imposing as part of granting the permit.
Learning that, after this week, the applicant wouldn’t be available until the day of Town Meeting, Chair Bartolini pushed to squeeze in the continued hearing tonight. Bartolini made it clear that the decision should be made prior to April 11th. Which happens to be the opening of Town Meeting, where three potential revisions to the Town’s Medical Marijuana zoning bylaws will be decided by voters.*
The decision to continue to tonight was made after Bartolini failed to get support for cutting off public comment to close the meeting and vote last night.
Co-Chair Thomas Bhistikul made a case for continuing the hearing. He said he wanted to hear from the “line of people” who still wanted to give input.
Bhistikul expressed that he wasn’t sure where he personally stood, but felt that the board was headed to an approval. He followed that “it might be worth another session to explore” conditions residents would like included.
Member Andrew Dennington agreed for different reasons. He said that discussing conditions after closing the hearing would be “awkward” since they wouldn’t be able to ask the applicants how they felt about the conditions.
Board members were an agreement that they don’t want to hear irate residents continue to make the same arguments over and over again for hours. And comments should be relevant to the bylaws.
In discussing the applicant’s schedule issues, Bartolini remarked “We have to get it done before”. Interrupting, the applicant responded “Yeah, I understand”.
Town Counsel indicated that posted notice wasn’t needed for a continued hearing.
A resident argued for longer notice. She said that residents weren’t aware that there was an option to propose conditions. “You are representing us, and we are asking you for more time to put together [conditions]. We didn’t even know that was an option.”
Board members appeared not only unswayed, but incredulous about the request. She was advised that the discussion would be at tonight’s hearing. Bartolini interrupted to say that the hearing should be continued to tonight “and if there’s a major issue with the residents, maybe we continue it again”.
The meeting opened with the reading of letters in opposition to citing the dispensary. Notably, one was written by the Hoolahans, organizers of both a petition against the dispensary and the proposed bylaws revising the dispensary zoning bylaws. They claimed to have established a reason for prohibiting the siting of the 255 Turnpike Road, which is less than 500 feet from their 26 Clifford Street residence.
Their letter claimed that bylaws prohibit the dispensary from being sited that close to their “Fun!dementals” program. The weekly basketball clinic program, which they helped establish in February, will be held on their property.
A representative for the applicant apparently decimated the Hoolahans’ argument, then summed up:
The reality is that you have a single family home with a driveway with a basketball net on it. If they are in fact running a business, they are doing so illegally.
He first stated that the program, if really open, is a commercial use located in a residential zone. He alleged that they have not received, or even applied for, special permitting or gone through a Site Plan Review. And, he claimed that under state regulations, it would be considered a youth camp and require permitting from Board of Health. (Scroll down for Marnie Hoolahan’s rebuttal.)
Updated (3/24/16 1:00 pm): After viewing the applicant’s response to the “recreation program” within the buffer zone, I inserted previous four paragraphs.
Updated (3/24/16 1:14 pm): This afternoon, the ZBA posted the agenda for tonight’s meeting and emailed me to notify readers. Here is the link.
Updated (3/24/16 4:01 pm): More highlights from the meeting:
Multiple comments, including by the Co-Chair, pointed out that the zoning is by special permit instead of by right. The intent of special permits is to allow Town officials to determine if a specific application is appropriate, including the specific site. For some, the location was the main issue – proximity of children on residential streets, nearby schools, and residential property values were among reasons to reject it.
Residents also worried about crime, diversion causing public health problems, impaired driving related to any dispensary.
Responding to worries about diversion, the applicant argued that their customers sign papers dictating that they will safely store the drugs so kids can’t access. He pointed out that patients who pickup oxycontin at Walgreens and residents who buy bottles of liquor don’t sign anything.
He argued that jail penalties make it unlikely for someone to divert medical marijuana. The state is extremely liberal about recreational marijuana. In contrast, that two strict medical marijuana laws, requiring jail time, were created when the law was passed. He said you can sell 60 lbs of marijuana and not get jail time. But any patient that redirects medical cannibas will serve 6 months in jail. And any employee diverting it would be looking at a 5-year federal penalty.
Since the drug will be sold at “right about street level” it wouldn’t make sense for customers to sell it for a profit. He confirmed Bhistikul’s assumption that the cannibas has less psychoactive elements than medical cannibas, making it less attractive to “stoners”.
Though not everyone got a chance to speak, it was made clear early on that only one commenter was there to support the application, Desiree Aselbekian.
Before opening up comment to the full public, Bartolini invited comment in favor. Referring to voters, Aselbekian said that she may be the only one standing up at the hearing but knows she doesn’t stand alone.
Aselbekian reminded the public that during the bylaw process she had advocated for Route 9 access. Worried about the cash-only transactions, she wanted to make sure that facilities were in well lit, public areas, not tucked away in the industrial park zone.
She also spoke passionately in support of the people who need access to a dispensary. She explained that her grandfather, who passed away on Monday, had spent the last 6-9 months of his life in debilitating pain. One week prior, he finally agreed to make an appointment to pursue a prescription for medical cannibas.
Addressing the people worried about the facility, she asked “Who do you think is going to be ‘hanging around’? It’s patients that are in pain, patients that are debilitated, patients that have cancer and are seeking chemotherapy”.
Selectman Paul Cimino asked the applicant to update the public on their prior commitment to selectmen to try to find an alternate site. It boiled down to nothing suitable was available that meets bylaw and regulatory requirements.
Economic Development Co-Chair Julie Connelly commented in opposition to the project (as did her board through a letter). She argued that it is not the board or Town’s job to find a facility for the business. Speaking about how relatively new dispensaries are, she asked “do we really want to be the guinea pig here?”
Marnie Hoolahan and neighbor Erin Wheatley stepped up to rebut the applicant’s undercutting of their recreational program. According to Hoolahan, because the program is free and is classes are limited to 4 students, it does not qualify as a camp or a commercial enterprise requiring special permits, but does meet requirements to be considered a recreation program.
Town Counsel advised that unless the Building Commissioner accepted it as a legitimate recreational basketball court, as of last night, they effectively didn’t “exist”.
Commissioner Mark Robideux didn’t see how running a recreational program translates to a having a facility. He didn’t believe the single net area qualified as a court. And he believed that to be considered a recreational facility it would need a special permit from the ZBA, and to meet other requirements for parking, accessibility, bathrooms, etc.
Later, Hoolahan questioned the traffic impact. She said that a Brookline facility anticipated 55 customers per day. But one study showed 26 customers within 15 minutes.
*Updated (3/24/16 4:57 pm): I’ve finally managed to work my way through the entire meeting. I didn’t hear any discussion of articles pending for the upcoming Town Meeting. But, given that the filing deadline isn’t until May 16th, I am still presuming it’s what Bartolini was referring to when he indicated they couldn’t wait until the week of April 11th.
(The original story included a note near the top that I’ve now removed. I explained that given the urgency of tonight’s meeting, I was sharing news after having only watched the first and final 10 minutes of the meeting.)