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Council wants to remove zoning board from cannabis considerations, strengthen regulations to limit clustering of marijuana shops

The City Council today approved proposals by Councilor Lydia Edwards (East Boston, Charlestown, North End) to end Zoning Board of Appeal oversight over cannabis proposals, after she said the zoning board had failed completely at it and that the Boston Cannabis Board is the better body for making sure neighborhoods get quality shops.

Currently, people who want to open a cannabis concern in Boston have to win approval from both the cannabis and the zoning boards before applying to the state for the final license they need to open.

The proposal to strip cannabis oversight from the zoning board now goes to the city Zoning Commission, which has the authority to amend sections of the city zoning code - which is then administered by the zoning board. Currently, cannabis shops are a "conditional" use under city zoning regulations, which means zoning-board approval is required.

Edwards cited contradictory decisions on similar proposals in different neighborhoods and the board's willingness to approve shops closer than the half-mile distance originally set by the council a few years ago and said the board was already overwhelmed by other zoning hearings even before it got saddled with marijuana proposals. She added the board is totally unequipped to deal with such issues as equity - ensuring that minority applicants and applicants who suffered under the war of drugs get priority treatment.

"They're not doing their job, they cannot do their job," she said. "I do not believe in any shape or form that the ZBA should be a part of the process."

Some zoning-board members have themselves expressed frustration with the issue of clustered shops, but say they gave up when the Walsh administration started forwarding over competing applications a few blocks from each other back in 2019.

Edwards's proposal deals with that by changing the regulations under which the Boston Cannabis Board operates, to require applicants seeking to open within a half mile of an existing or approved retail shop to prove a particular hardship - and not one caused simply by their desire to open in a particular area.

"Amen, amen," said City Councilor Michael Flaherty, the original proponent of the half-mile buffer zone, who worked with Edwards on her proposal. Councilors have repeatedly said they don't want to see any of their neighborhoods become known as marijuana districts.

Edwards added that the cannabis board would be required to seek the same sort of community-outreach process - which now includes at least one meeting in a proposed shop's neighborhood - as required by applicants before the zoning board. Also, because the City Council has some say over the way the cannabis board operates, it could move quickly to make additional changes if needed in a way it could not with the zoning board, many of whose functions are set by state law.

Councilor Andrea Campbell (Dorchester, Mattapan, Roslindale) said she was torn by the proposal. On the one hand, she said, she agreed the zoning board has proven ill equipped to deal with marijuana issues. On the other hand, she said, the cannabis board hasn't always done such a good job itself.

"Many residents are fearful, because this new body is still figuring it out in many ways and when they get it wrong [the residents] feel they have second place to go," she said.

Councilor Kenzie Bok (Back Bay, Beacon Hill, Bay Village, Fenway, Mission Hill) said she is concerned because of the unique zoning in several commercial areas in her district - almost every commercial use is a "conditional" use, which means stores that could open as of right elsewhere have to go before the zoning board, a provision the city and local groups agreed to several years ago as a way to maintain control over commercial development. The problem with Edwards's proposal is that it would remove this oversite and lead to one particular type of business potentially having an easier path to opening than others.

Edwards said her proposal is just the first step in having the zoning commission amend the way cannabis shops are approved and that there will be plenty of time for fine tuning the specific zoning requirements.

After a voice vote, acting Council President Matt O'Malley declared the measure had passed. None of the councilors called for formal vote tally, however.

Neighborhoods: 

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Comments

Now do housing!

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Voting closed 22

They literally fail completely at everything they do.

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Voting closed 26

have repeatedly said they don't want to see any of their neighborhoods become known as marijuana districts.

If it's available everywhere then "marijuana districts" won't be a thing. Crazy idea, but maybe if marijuana shops were as plentiful as liquor stores then there would be no reason to worry about parking or crowds when considering zoning.

Good for Lydia Edwards.

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Voting closed 39

"Help, my district is full of thriving businesses that people want to shop at!" sounds like a pretty good problem to have.

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Voting closed 18

If there is already a Cannabis board then it makes sense to let them figure out if a shop should be placed. The ZBA can focus on if a business should be in that spot and let the Cannabis board worry about specifics.

In regards to not grouping them why not break the city into districts and put a cap on each district ? For comparison Chelsea and East Boston are about the same size and population. East Boston shouldn't have more spots then Chelsea is allowed and if it does there Isa problem with the Boston map. Chelsea stands on it's own so it would be interesting to see if being in Boston gives East Boston more or less spots.

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Voting closed 18

Is the Licensing Board involved at all?

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Voting closed 14

Let the market decide how many shops there will be. The red tape is stupid. There is no real public safety-based need to be this restrictive with where this industry can open shops, just a bunch of imaginary reefer madness boogeymen.

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Voting closed 16