A decision by the mayor's office to approve two marijuana shops less than a half mile apart - in potential violation of a city ordinance - sparked an unusually volatile Zoning Board of Appeal meeting today, during which the board chairman slammed his gavel to the table to restore order at one point, not long after he yelled at a city councilor that she was out of order.
Placed in a precarious legal position by the mayor's office, the board voted to approve a Pittsfield corporation's proposal for a recreational and medicinal marijuana shop at 251 Meridan St. in Central Square, then was poised to vote to reject a proposal by a group of East Boston businessmen for a recreational pot shop just 0.4 miles away at 71 Maverick Sq., because of the distance issue.
But the board agreed to defer action on that proposal to give that team time to come up with a formal legal answer to the half-mile issue - enshrined in an ordinance approved by the city council, then approved by Mayor Walsh.
East Boston Bloom, LLC, will try to convince the board it deserves approval for its Maverick Square shop on April 9.
The board's approval of Berkshire Roots's plan for Meridian St. does not mean that company can begin dealing pot - it just lets it apply to the state Cannabis Control Commission for a license.
"We are put in a pretty ridiculous situation here," acting ZBA Chairman Mark Erlich said. At one point, he asked the mayor's neighborhood liaison if the mayor's office had really signed "host community agreements" with two competing concerns just a short walk down Meridian Street from each other.
"Yes," the aide replied.
"I'm really, really sorry to see this has happened," Erlich told residents.
City Councilor Lydia Edwards (East Boston, Charlestown, North End), though, was far more livid, both at the mayor's office for making the board even have to make the choice and at the board for granting its approval to the Central Square proposal first, simply because it was one position higher on the board's agenda for today.
"it's disgusting," she said, and all due to Mayor Walsh's office refusing to own up to a mistake that nobody with access to Google Maps should have made. And the board should have deferred action on the Pittsfield concern's application as well, she said. "It's offensive, offensive."
Edwards backed the Maverick Square proposal because it would have local owners who include members of minority groups and a veteran and because it was in Maverick Square, which is well served by public transit.
But she implored the board, if it approved the Central Square proposal, rather than ordering it deferred, it needed to approve the Maverick Square shop as well, even though that could mean what she said would be "many, many months, if not years" of court battles, because it would essentially reflect a nullification of the city ordinance, which would lead to lawsuits by applicants all across the city who have been dissuaded from applying for approval because of the distance issue.
Before the board had a chance to vote on a motion by member Craig Galvin to deny the Maverick Square proposal, East Boston Blooms - whose team includes former City Councilor Sal LaMattina - offered a possible solution: The ordinance refers to the distance between "existing" marijuana facilities, which means it would not be a violation to approve their proposal also, since the Central Square facility isn't open. Then, they said, it would be up to the state commission to decide the matter.
Galvin then changed his proposal from "deny" to "defer" and the board voted unanimously in support - absent member Bruce Bickerstaff, who has been recusing himself from all marijuana-related hearings because he is himself a part owner of a concern looking to get into the Boston marijuana market.
On the merits of each case, a number of residents brought up the usual concerns about children, drug addicts and alcoholics being tempted by pot shops, as well as about traffic in a neighborhood already clogged with it.
Central Square residents said they were particularly concerned about traffic both because there's no place for the Berkshire Roots van to make its deliveries but to sit in the bus stop right out front two or three times a week, for what the company acknowledged could be up to 20 minutes at a time. Another issue: People getting off planes at Logan would call up Weedmaps, see the Central Square location and direct their Uber or Lyft drivers to make a quick stop there before heading off to the rest of the city.
One Maverick Square resident, though, said her part of East Boston has the worst traffic.
The two hearings, one right after the other, grew occasionally heated. When one resident said he felt the board should know that one of the Maverick Square principals - actually two - were trying to open a strip club in western Massachusetts, Erlich had enough. He slammed his gavel - of course the zoning-board chairman has a gavel - to the table several times and told the man to stop. "This is ridiculous! This is ridiculous!"
Then Erlich and Edwards got into it. Edwards, who had spoken during the time for people who favored the Maverick Square proposal, got in line during the opponents' time, to rebut a resident who questioned her support for the proposal. Erlich tried to get her to sit down, saying she'd already spoken in favor and doubted she was rising to now join the opposition. When Edwards continued to speak, Erlich told her: "You're out of order!"