BY ANGELJEAN CHIARAMIDA
---- — SALISBURY — The Planning Board this week aired its first draft of new zoning for the siting of medical marijuana facilities in town before a small audience that included police Chief Thomas Fowler.
After state voters approved a ballot referendum making legal the cultivation, sale/distribution of marijuana for medicinal purposes, the Humanitarian Medical Use of Marijuana Act went into effect in January 2013, with state public health officials promulgating rules for the licensing of such entities.
After being contacted by an individual interested in setting up a medical marijuana cultivation center in Salisbury last year, town officials looked into how best to regulate the placement of such a business, while protecting children and abiding by the state law.
In September 2013, selectmen and Planning Board members met with a legal consultant to be briefed on the intricacies of the state regulation, as well as what communities can do to regulate them. Communities are not allowed to pass regulations that prohibit facilities, but can construct new zoning ordinances that determine how and where they can be sited.
To give the Planning Board time to construct a set of regulations, October Town Meeting voters approved a temporary moratorium on medical marijuana facilities in Salisbury. The moratorium gives the Planning Board until June 30 to formulate — and Town Meeting to adopt — the necessary rules to regulate medical marijuana centers in town. The moratorium expires at that time.
Since the moratorium’s passage, the Planning Board has held two public workshops to discuss proposed zoning ordinances on the topic; however, neither workshop drew an audience and the board received only one written comment on the subject.
Salisbury’s town counsel drafted an initial ordinance that board members used to create the proposed “Model Medical Marijuana Overlay District Bylaw,” which they showed to the public on Wednesday. Copies are available on the Planning Board page on the town’s website (www.salisburyma.gov) or at Town Hall.
Fowler praised the “comprehensive” six-page document that would allow medical marijuana cultivation or distribution centers only in the town’s commercial and industrial zones. His one concern, he said, is the 300-foot buffer zone the facilities would have to comply with to distance themselves from residential dwellings and places where children congregate in scheduled activities.
“When I reviewed (the draft bylaw) I saw a 300-foot buffer zone (proposed),” Fowler told the board. “Three hundred feet from where children congregate seems too small.”
Fowler urged the board to increase the buffer zone to 1,000 feet, similar to the federal government’s recommendation for drug-free zones surrounding schools.
A buffer zone prohibits medical marijuana facilities from locating within a specific distance from any type of facility in which children commonly congregate in scheduled activities, including educational institutions, child care centers, libraries, playgrounds, public parks, youth centers, public swimming pools and video arcades. In addition, they would need to site beyond the buffer zone from dwelling units, or residences, under Salisbury’s ordinance.
According to assistant town planner Leah Hill, the board considered three options in regard to buffer zone distances: 300, 500 and 1,000 feet. They decided on 300 feet because that’s the state’s drug-free school zone requirement.
Planning Board chairman Robert Straubel said in considering buffer zones, the board was told one reason the state’s attorney general would reject a town’s regulations would be if the buffer zone was so large that it would be physically impossible to site the facility.
Planning Department staff mapped out buffer zone distances from places where children congregate in the applicable zones to investigate that very issue, Hill said, and she believes increasing the buffer zone to 1,000 feet would not preempt the ability to site in Salisbury as it related to distances from children’s activities. But, if dwellings remain in the buffer zone regulation, that could be another matter, she said.
But on a case-by-case basis, the proposed bylaw gives the board authority to reduce by as much as 25 percent the buffer zone distance should an applicant show it would prohibit location in town or if the applicant demonstrates it will employ “adequate security measures to prevent diversion of medical marijuana to minors who are not qualifying patients,” pursuant to the state law.
Selectman Fred Knowles questioned why the board included “dwelling units” in its buffer zone regulation at all. Straubel answered that homes are scattered throughout all Salisbury’s commercial zones. The board felt that residents living within commercial zones could be upset, or “prove bothersome,” if a medical marijuana facility were located close by, he said.
“My thoughts were we could put (dwellings) in (the buffer zone) and see if anyone objects,” Straubel told Knowles.
Salisbury’s four commercial zones basically run along both sides of the town’s state highways: Route1A (along about half of Beach Road), the north and south corridors of Route 1 (Lafayette and Bridge roads, respectively) excluding the village center, Route 110 (Elm Street), Rabbit Road and Main Street, and on Route 286. The town’s light industrial zone along Rabbit Road is also included as an area where a medical marijuana facility could site.
Locating a facility in town would require a special permit issued by the Planning Board, with a list of regulations with which applicants must comply. Selectman Freeman Condon urged the board to require a complete site plan review for medical marijuana facilities, as part of the special permit process.
The board continued the hearing on the proposed ordinance to Feb. 12 in consideration of the issues raised at Wednesday’s meeting, which includes Knowles’ proposal to charge a medical marijuana facility a “hosting fee” as mitigation for the security costs of having such a center in town.