A year after Boston overhauled its system for approving local marijuana businesses, city officials are set to debate a new proposal that would significantly streamline the process — and a separate rule change that some companies fear would add unnecessary red tape to the imminent rollout of delivery services for recreational pot.
City Councilor Lydia Edwards earlier this month filed several proposed amendments to Boston’s cannabis licensing and zoning regulations. Essentially, they would remove the Zoning Board of Appeal as a required second step in the approval process for marijuana shops and other pot facilities, instead granting exclusive oversight of most applications to the newer Boston Cannabis Board.
The changes would also give the Cannabis Board power to grant exceptions to a city rule mandating a half-mile buffer between every marijuana facility. Currently, only the ZBA can issue such variances.
The buffer zone policy had been intended to prevent clusters of pot shops. In practice, however, the inflexible rule has helped fuel ugly fights between rival applicants vying for prime locations in commercial districts, while pushing others to locate closer to residential areas, where opposition from neighbors can be fierce.
“The ZBA was not supposed to decide, nor does it have the qualifications to decide, which neighborhoods should or shouldn’t have cannabis,” Edwards said. “The cannabis board already does a thorough, transparent analysis using a point system that [considers] the community meeting process, the district councilor’s voice, the company’s security measures, all that — and after those things are put on the table and vetted and the applicant has done all that work, if they’re given a license, that should be enough.”
Industry leaders cheered the proposal. They argued the zoning board represents an unpredictable and unnecessary stop, with its development-oriented members lacking expertise in the cannabis industry and often inappropriately considering factors beyond the board’s primary jurisdiction, land use.
Edwards and other critics of the current system also pointed to a 2019 hearing during which the zoning board approved one East Boston applicant over another, simply because the first business appeared earlier on its agenda that day, thereby shifting the burden of winning a buffer zone exception to the second candidate.
To date, the zoning panel has rejected three companies previously approved by the cannabis board.
“We all want to be conscious of not creating a mass concentration [of marijuana stores] in one area,” said former city councilor Mike Ross, an attorney who represents many Boston license applicants. “But to have two sets of bureaucracy is too much.
“The ZBA has become a second bite at the apple for people who are just against cannabis generally — you get 20 naysayers from a neighborhood that voted 70 percent in favor of legalization, and they’ve figured out they can kill a store at a ZBA meeting. That’s not fair.”
Neighborhood groups, however, are skeptical about pushing aside the zoning board.
Elliott Laffer, who chairs the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay, argued that the ZBA does a better job than the cannabis board of considering neighbors’ concerns, and that liquor licensees similarly need approval from multiple city agencies.
Besides, Laffer added, simply shifting the job of granting buffer zone exceptions from one board to the other won’t make those decisions any simpler. Currently, four marijuana companies with cannabis board approval are seeking to open retail stores in or near the Back Bay that would be within a half-mile of one another.
“The cannabis board sees its mission, I think, as launching the growth of this industry,” he said. “If the buffer zone becomes their charge, it would mean they have to think in a different way. It’s easy to say ‘yes’ to two [applications] that may be in conflict when you know you don’t have to make the final decision.”
Edwards said the cannabis board would still strongly consider neighborhood feedback under her plan and grant only limited exceptions to the buffer rule in appropriately dense commercial areas. She noted that under state lawm Boston must eventually approve about 52 recreational marijuana stores — roughly 20 percent of the number of liquor stores in the city — a threshold that will be geographically impossible to reach if the buffer is strictly enforced.
Meanwhile, the cannabis board earlier this month proposed its own somewhat controversial change to Boston’s marijuana regulations: requiring brick-and-mortar pot retailers to get city approval before partnering with separate courier-style delivery companies to offer consumers home delivery of cannabis products. Recreational deliveries are expected to debut in Massachusetts within weeks, after the state Cannabis Control Commission this month issued its first license to a delivery operator.
Lesley Hawkins, the cannabis board’s executive secretary, said the rule would allow city officials to review stores’ plans for managing the flow of delivery vans, ensuring they won’t bother neighbors or worsen traffic in the area.
The rule would also ensure that responsibility for drafting such procedures and reaching out to nearby residents falls on existing stores, not startups seeking delivery licenses, which under state regulations must be so-called “economic empowerment” or “social equity” applicants affected by the war on drugs.
“It’s going to be those communities where [marijuana] retailers are located that could potentially be negatively impacted by queueing and cars running,” Hawkins said. “We’re just saying, we want to know how [the retailers] are going to do it and that we think they should be the ones to go to the community” with the plans.
The proposal has some in the marijuana business grumbling, however.
James Winokur, the chief executive of Berkshire Roots, insisted the planned addition of delivery operations at his company’s East Boston marijuana store will have no noticeable impact on the neighborhood.
He questioned why the cannabis board is only now floating the proposed rule, months after the state finalized its delivery regulations, and said he fears the process of collecting input on the proposed rule and then implementing it will severely delay the debut of Boston delivery companies.
“There’s some visibility the [cannabis board] should have into how we do delivery,” he conceded, “but how long could this go on? Given that these are social equity candidates, to put them on pause again seems unreasonable.”