A Haverhill marijuana entrepreneur is suing two local businessmen, saying their efforts to block her proposed downtown cannabis shop amount to extortion.
Caroline Pineau, a longtime Haverhill resident who has operated a yoga studio in the city for more than eight years, signed a contract with local officials earlier this year to open a recreational marijuana store dubbed Stem at 124 Washington St., along the Merrimack River.
But Stavros Dimakis, the owner of a deli across the street, along with Lloyd Jennings and Brad Brooks, the owners of a building and restaurant adjacent to Pineau’s proposed site, sued Pineau and the city in May. They claimed Haverhill’s decision to change its zoning to allow cannabis facilities in the area was arbitrary, dangerous to children, harmful to the interests of nearby property owners, and detrimental to the city’s character. The suit also contended that Pineau’s business and the local policies permitting it are illegal under federal law, which defines marijuana as a dangerous illicit drug akin to heroin.
Now, Pineau is fighting back with a lawsuit of her own against Jennings and Brooks, who coincidentally lives next door to her home elsewhere in Haverhill. She claims the two men are using threats and intimidation to shake her down for tens of thousands of dollars.
“It’s become clear these opponents are going to do everything they can to stop us from moving forward,” Pineau said in an interview. “I’m feeling bullied and extremely frightened for myself and my family. I’ve never experienced anything like this before in my life — not as a business owner, not as a woman, and not as a human being. It’s extremely unsettling.”
Tensions apparently began when Pineau and her family outbid Jennings and Brooks for the 124 Washington St. property. But the current dispute is centered on a deck the men built in 2017 for the previous owners of her property, the Victor Emmanuel Lodge, also known as the Sons of Italy club.
According to Pineau’s lawsuit, Jennings and Brooks agreed to build a deck for the Sons of Italy in exchange for permission to build a separate deck for their restaurant, The Hidden Pig, that protruded 15 feet onto the 124 Washington St. property. After the projects had been completed, the lodge sold the 124 Washington St. building to a company affiliated with Pineau’s project.
Pineau’s suit says Jennings and Brooks promptly demanded $30,000 as compensation for the deck they had built on her property, and that Brooks told her, “you better bet me and my partner are going to get our money back from the deck we built. . . and make sure you go through the same hell with the city that we did.”
The lawsuit also claims Jennings told others that Pineau “doesn’t know who she is dealing with” and “she’ll see how Haverhill works” — statements she claims were meant to intimidate her into paying up.
Jennings and Brooks declined to comment, referring a reporter instead to their lawyer, Scott Schlager.
“These claims are outrageous, meritless, and amount to little more than an attempt to intimidate our clients for challenging a zoning ordinance that would allow a recreational marijuana dispensary in the middle of Haverhill’s central business district, near public parks and playgrounds where children congregate,” Schlager said in a statement.
He added that he was considering seeking sanctions against Pineau under the state’s “anti-SLAPP” statute, a law meant to prevent lawsuits whose fundamental purpose is intimidating defendants into silence.
Asked for comment on the legal challenge by Brooks, Jennings, and Dimakis to Haverhill’s zoning change, Mayor James J. Fiorentini said in a brief statement that “the city is confident that the zoning was legal and will be upheld by the courts.”
The fight has prompted an outpouring of support for Pineau from marijuana advocates and sympathetic Haverhill residents. Earlier this month, a group led by activist Mike Crawford picketed Mark’s Deli, bearing signs that read “drop the lawsuit” and “more weed, less greed.”
In the meantime, Pineau said she’ll keep working to open Stem. The family-funded company is one of three cannabis retailers to sign host community agreements so far with Haverhill, where about 55 percent of voters in 2016 favored legalizing marijuana. Stem will seek a special permit from the city at a June 18 hearing, while its application for a state license is pending before the Cannabis Control Commission.
“I’ve really fallen in love with the Haverhill community,” Pineau said. “I see a tremendous opportunity to help revitalize the downtown.”