For the second time in two years, the Boston City Council has voted to overhaul the city’s system for reviewing and approving proposed marijuana facilities, overwhelmingly backing two proposals by Councilor Lydia Edwards to streamline the local application process.
The most significant change, approved earlier this week, is a revision of Boston’s zoning code that would effectively strip the Zoning Board of Appeals of its authority over most proposed marijuana facilities.
If the change is endorsed by the city’s Zoning Commission and Acting Mayor Kim Janey, cannabis companies trying to open recreational marijuana stores or growing facilities would need approval only from the city’s Cannabis Board. The mayor’s signature would also be required on the resulting “host community agreement,” usually a formality.
Currently, every marijuana license applicant approved by the Cannabis Board must then appear before the ZBA, which also holds the power to grant exceptions to a mandated half-mile buffer between each marijuana business.
Edwards and other critics, including industry lobbyists, contend that the zoning board lacks marijuana expertise and has wielded its power over pot ineffectively and sometimes arbitrarily, rejecting several companies endorsed by the Cannabis Board after a long and expensive application process that considered community feedback. They argue the two-step process functions mostly to give small groups of opponents a second chance to kill off proposed marijuana stores.
“They’re not doing their job [and] they cannot do their job,” Edwards said sharply, referring to the ZBA. “There’s no positive role they can play.”
Edwards’s proposals would make the Cannabis Board solely responsible for considering siting and granting exceptions to the half-mile buffer, a geographic necessity if Boston is to meet its state minimum of 52 recreational stores. Two members with expertise in land use and neighborhood groups would be added to the current body of five commissioners.
It would also make other tweaks to the system, including expanding the criteria for becoming an “equity applicant,” essentially, people from communities affected disproportionately by marijuana prohibition. Under the last revision to the city’s marijuana licensing process, spearheaded in 2019 by then-city councilor Janey, the Cannabis Board must approve equal numbers of equity applicants and other companies.
While the council approved most of the tweaks proposed by Edwards on a unanimous voice vote, the zoning proposal prompted some pushback along the same lines as criticism voiced by neighborhood groups earlier this year.
Councilor Kenzie Bok said that she supported the idea in general, but was concerned it would override the more stringent zoning codes residents fought to establish in certain “business sub-districts” where even non-cannabis retailers must get special approval from the ZBA to open. Edwards said it may be possible to reach a compromise when the measure comes before the Zoning Commission.
Councilor Andrea Campbell also expressed hesitancy about removing the ZBA from the approval process.
“I agree it’s important to streamline the process and not incur more costs because of bureaucracy and red tape,” she said, “but many residents are fearful” the relatively new Cannabis Board will “get it wrong,” leaving them with no option to appeal.
“There is still a lack of trust,” Campbell said.
Under the changes, the state requirement that every marijuana company hold a public hearing with neighbors would remain. Edwards also stressed that her proposal is intended to make the process fairer and more predictable both for applicants and for neighbors who may oppose such facilities, with community feedback and siting comprising a large part of each applicant’s score on the Cannabis Board’s rubric. And, she noted, her plan to hand the Cannabis Board sole authority would in turn give the Council the power to change the rules more easily in the future, since changes to the zoning code need approval from the Zoning Commission.
“We’re doing what we can’t do with the ZBA: Pick the members, pick the standards, and push them to do better,” Edwards said.
The proposals passed Wednesday would also strengthen the longstanding half-mile buffer rule, intended to prevent clusters of pot shops, by requiring every retail applicant seeking an exception from the buffer to extensively justify it in filings to the board. However, the new rules would at the same time exempt other types of marijuana facilities such as cultivation centers and laboratories from the buffer rule, acknowledging their lesser impact on nearby areas.
A spokesperson for Janey said only that she would review the proposal.