Steven Goldman would like to open a marijuana manufacturing facility at the former Notre Dame Church but it is too close to the Boy's and Girl's Club.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — When Christopher Swindlehurst and Crispina ffrench first saw the former Notre Dame Church on Melville Street, they loved it.
That was back in 2012. They turned it into a maker's space in Shire City Sanctuary.
It has a commercial kitchen. It is a screen shop. It has a sewing lab. And artisans and small businesses used it to make their goods. But Swindlehurst said the couple doesn't have the resources to provide the upkeep it needs.
"It requires a lot more love and money than I have to put into it," Swindlehurt said.
So it has been on the market. Steven Goldman found it recently and it fit perfectly with the company he's looking to open in the city — QIC Cannabis.
He said his plans were to turn the former church into a marijuana cultivation facility. He emphasized that the company would be discrete and manufacture marijuana products only — not sell them from the property. He'd retrofit the existing structure and ship out his products.
"Our facility would appear to be nothing more than a Notre Dame cathedral," Goldman said.
But before he could move forward, there was one specific hurdle: the Boy's and Girl's Club.
"We are less than 200 feet away from the church, we share a parking lot, our playground is less than 175 feet from the church where 80 preschool kids play a day," Boy's and Girl's Club CEO Joseph McGovern said.
McGovern said some 300 to 400 children ranging from third grade to high school are in and out of the club on a daily basis, with many of them walking there. He doesn't think a marijuana facility should be located that close to a place where so many children congregate.
"It is the main location for youth programming," McGovern said.
And so Goldman's plans came to naught.
The City Council was presented with local zoning ordinances on Tuesday, ultimately approving them, and banning any cannabis facility from opening within 500 feet of a preschool or facility for youth programs. The council also imposed a cap of 35 total retail establishments — a cap of 10 had been removed from the proposal earlier during the legislative process.
The buffer zone is in an addition to the already stringent state laws surrounding the emerging industry but one many in the city felt was needed to protect the children.
"How would you feel if your son or daughter was exposed to a risk factor such as that?" asked Berkshire Family YMCA Randy Kinnas in his support for upholding the setbacks.
Kinnas said 500 feet is still a very visible building. The state recommends bylaws restricting from schools, but days cares aren't much different, he said. He voiced his support to the City Council to not only keep the 500-foot buffer but to expand it further.
"We are in full support of the amendment as written. However, if there were to be a change in the amount of feet, I think, should be increased," Kinnas said.
Board of Health member Alan Kulberg joined his side, saying the attitudes among teens using marijuana has turned to not even considering it to be a drug. But, in his pediatric opinion, the use of marijuana causes developmental issues in brains younger than age 25.
"It sends a message that marijuana is no big deal," Kulberg said. "There are major potential human risks as well. Is it really worth those risks?"
Kulberg argued that the city's zoning right now should be to "first do no harm" and adopt conservative measures to guide the growth of the industry. Permitting Coordinator Nate Joyner said the Department of Community Development opted to propose a 500-foot cap for that exact reason — to be careful when the industry begins to roll out.
Voters approved recreational marijuana usage in the November 2016 election and the industry is now just months away from rolling out statewide. The state's Cannabis Control Commission will oversee the licensing and enforcement of policies.
But, local municipalities have the ability to adopt reasonable zoning laws to direct establishments to be located in certain areas.
For Pittsfield, the bylaws divide the types of establishments into four categories — testing, cultivation and manufacturing, outdoor cultivation, and retail. For each, there are guidelines on where the type of business can operate and what approvals it would need.
The proposal already gives the Zoning Board of Appeals the right to deny permits on a fairly broad set of powers for such a facility. The ZBA could deny a special permit for basically any reason and could issue specific site requirements.
Joyner said for the Melville location particularly, the developers would need a special permit, have to comply with the 500-foot setback from both the day-care operations and the playground, and then the ZBA would do a site analysis and could provide more instructions to limit impacts to the neighborhood.
But the Melville Street concept won't have a chance to go to the ZBA. Nor will any proposal within 500 feet of a school, playground, or day-care centers despite a fairly split council on the issue. The City Council ultimately stuck with the buffer as originally proposed and as was kept during the Ordinance and Rules Committee work.
City Councilor at Large Melissa Mazzeo was against imposing restrictions stronger than other similar industries. She said the voters approved it and that the city doesn't impose such restrictions for other legal products.
"It is a legal product. Adults 21 and over can make the decision what they want to do. I have a really hard time regulating what my fellow adults can do," Mazzeo said.
However, she did cite the tobacco regulations as having a buffer zone and ultimately voted in favor of keeping that restriction in place - though she did oppose other restrictions.
Ward 6 Councilor John Krol said he trusts the ZBA to do its job effectively and didn't see the need to craft such regulations. He argued that the requirements could push away a business that could actually fit well into a community.
Krol and Mazzeo did have other councilors share their views. But, not enough to abolish the buffer zone.
But, the City Council did raise the cap the Department of Community Development had proposed. Joyner proposed a cap of 10, which he based on the number of facilities that had opened in other areas. He said it should be expected between 10 and 28 would open in a city the size of Pittsfield.
"It is self-imposed so we can revisit it if we need to," Joyner said.
He warned though, that "the cap couldn't address demand. You could create additional impacts if you reduce where it is available without addressing the demand." By limiting the number of retail options for customers, that could cause such issues as traffic at the few sites available he said.
He added that with medical marijuana the city set a cap, which ultimately was too small after the state government made changes to the law. He said the city capped those permits at three at a time when the state was expected to only issue five for all of Berkshire County. Now, he said he's had to turn medical facilities away.
"The purpose [of limiting retail to 10] was more for discussion than opinion," Joyner said.
"I think there should be some sort of cap. I think 10 is too small," said Councilor at Large Earl Persip, who was vocal about keeping the buffer zone for schools and day-care centers. "We don't know what these businesses will bring, what problems and what great things. We need to get a feel."
Persip suggested around 30 would be a good number, enough to cover those who have expressed interest already and a few more. He said he doesn't want the city to get inundated with companies opening shops.
"I hear complaints about how many auto stores we have. It is the first time out, there definitely needs to be a cap," Persip said.
Ward 2 Councilor Kevin Morandi, however, argued against the facilities. He said the city already has 35 liquor licenses and the more marijuana shops there are, "to me that sends the wrong message." He voiced safety concerns and questioned if the city will need to hire more police officers with the additional shops.
Morandi had even pushed to expand the buffer zone to include "anywhere where organized youth activities are occurring" but failed to get support from the rest of the council.
Krol again said the cap pushes companies away. He said companies could turn away and invest elsewhere it there are already too many people lined up for permits. But, not all of those applications could be right for Pittsfield. He said he'd like to have more applications come to the city, and have the ZBA deny the permits that are ill-conceived
"I still think that an artificial cap creates an atmosphere in the market that does change things. I think this can be a more organic process," Krol said.
The councilors batted around a few numbers trying to settle on a cap, ultimately falling on 35 to match with the number of liquor licenses in the city. The proposal had been through two public hearings and was altered by the Ordinance and Rules Subcommittee.
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