By Mac Cerullo
---- — AMESBURY — In the wake of last month’s failed attempt to impose a moratorium on all medical marijuana development in Amesbury, the City Council has decided to shift gears on the issue and will instead pursue a zoning amendment regulating the new industry.
District 6 Councilor Jonathan Sherwood has proposed a zoning amendment that would create a Medical Marijuana Overlay District (MMOD) specifically targeting dispensaries. If approved, the MMOD would restrict any future dispensary to industrial and light industrial districts while preventing them from opening downtown or in residential areas.
According to the bill, future dispensaries would require a special permit from the Planning Board and could not be located within 500 feet of a school, child care facility, library, playground, public park, youth center, public pool, video arcade or any other place where children are known to congregate.
Notably, the new zoning district would not regulate cultivation facilities, which means that if either of the two companies interested in setting up cultivation facilities in Amesbury are awarded licenses at the end of the month by the state Department of Public Health, they would be clear to open without local government interference.
Those companies are Alternative Therapies Group Inc., which is looking to lease space in a warehouse on South Hunt Road, and Green Heart Holistic Health and Pharmaceuticals, which is interested in setting up shop at 10 Industrial Way near the Salisbury border. If awarded DPH licenses, both would be located within the proposed MMOD.
The bill is co-sponsored by Councilors at-large Jim Kelcourse, Anne Ferguson and Donna McClure and will be read as a first reading at the City Council’s next meeting on Jan. 14. The bill will then be forwarded to committee and to the Planning Board, which is expected to conduct a full review of its own.
Sherwood said he’s been working on the zoning amendment for the past month so that he could propose it right when he officially took office. He said that by focusing on dispensaries, the city would have a chance to take a proactive approach to medical marijuana while avoiding a repeat of the last month, when the issue crept up on the city and caught many officials by surprise.
“There’s been no lack of awareness-raising for municipalities,” Sherwood said, referring to the frequent updates that city officials have received regarding the statewide implementation of medical marijuana. “I don’t want to point fingers at anyone in particular, but the Planning Board, City Council and mayor can all initiative zoning bylaws, and nobody did. I think that’s how we found ourselves reactive.”
Voters overwhelmingly supported legalizing medical marijuana in November of 2012, and over the following year communities around the state began discussing the issue, and many implemented protective regulations. In Amesbury, however, the issue was virtually absent from the local political conversation until after the city’s Nov. 5 election, nearly a year after the law was first passed.
Medical marijuana first appeared on the city’s radar at the first City Council meeting following the election, when Ferguson proposed a resolution of non-opposition to future cultivation facilities. When it came out that multiple medical marijuana companies were potentially coming to Amesbury, the issue gained momentum.
Ultimately, McClure proposed a moratorium on all medical marijuana development that would have halted any activity through June 30. Given that the legislative session was about to end, the council had very little time to discuss the issue and was forced to schedule multiple special meetings around the holidays to accommodate the bill.
The moratorium was originally supposed to be the subject of a special informational meeting on Dec. 17, giving residents a chance to ask questions and sleep on the issue before councilors took a vote following a joint meeting of the City Council and Planning Board on Dec. 30, just before the end of the legislative session.
The schedule wound up being condensed after a snowstorm canceled the Dec. 17 meeting, and ultimately the moratorium failed after the Planning Board was unable to reach a quorum at its Dec. 30 meeting.
Without a Planning Board hearing, the City Council couldn’t take a vote; but even if it could, a majority of the councilors indicated they did not support the moratorium and would have voted against it if given the chance.
Speaking in support of the new measure, Kelcourse said he’s happy that Amesbury will have a chance to proactively discuss dispensaries without being up against a tight deadline, and that when all is said and done, the city will be prepared for the arrival of the new industry.
“You’re not going to be walking into (a bakery) in downtown Amesbury to buy a pot-infused brownie,” Kelcourse said. “These will be located in a location appropriate for medical marijuana products.”