PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The Zoning Board of Appeals approved True East Leaf's special permit request to grow and sell marijuana at the former Richmond Bakery.
After some discussion Wednesday over odor and parking concerns, the ZBA approved the request with the needed supermajority vote.
"Needless to say you saw the board at their most vulnerable tonight and this is a difficult decision," Chairman Albert Ingegni III said. "On behalf of us all continue to make all of the efforts you have made."
True East Leaf looks to both cultivate and sell cannabis at 161 Seymour St. Although it received approval through the Community Development Board last year, the Zoning Board had delayed a vote through a series of meetings with concerns over possible odor and parking.
The business has no off-street parking and, in order to keep limited on street parking open for customers, it was asked to find alternative spots for employees to park.
Attorney Anthony Doyle said his clients have done this and have executed agreements with surrounding business for eight separate spots for employees. He said they were only asked to provide four.
However, there was another side to the limited parking that was a concern and neighboring businesses felt inevitably that True East Leaf patrons would encroach on their limited parking.
"I know this is going to happen as well as I know my own name," former Tahiti Take Out owner Patricia Simonetta said. "Because this already happened to us ... employees and patrons will park as close to the building as possible it is human nature."
The board also heard from the owners of Viale Florist and Wahconah Street Green House, who said even without anybody occupying the former Richmond Bakery, parking is an issue with Tahiti Take Out patrons parking in their designated spots and their own patrons parking in Tahiti Take Out's lot.
This was a sticking point for board member John Fitzgerald, who felt without off-street parking the business did not belong in such a dense area.
"I have no doubt that they will be successful but I have problems with the location," he said. "Even though they have assigned parking I think it will create problems for existing businesses."
Board member Erin Sullivan heard the board's concerns but said the location is zoned industrial and historically businesses have operated in that very location.
Ingegni echoed Sullivan's statement and felt the board had to be careful to deny a permit based on a parking scenario that exists throughout the entire city and other communities.
"This is an inner-city store and if you are in downtown Boston or Worcester there is not always parking," he said. "I am not sure that precludes a business from starting and I think we have to be cautious because we don't want to dismiss a business where they don't have a parking lot with 20 spaces."
Doyle said they have filed a parking plan as the board had asked and planned to hire an employee to enforce proper parking. He did agree parking was not ideal but said this is the case throughout the city.
"I have an office on Park Square. I don't have off-street parking. Patrick's Pub does not have any," he said. "Right down North St. none of those stores or restaurants have parking ... It is what it is and we will do our best to make sure it does not impact our neighbors."
Odor was the other point of contention and neighboring businesses were concerned that a marijuana smell might take over the neighborhood.
Nicole Swegel, a relative of the True East Leaf owners and primary investor, spoke to the subjective nature of smell and felt everyone could learn to co-habitate.
"Some people like it, others do not. It is no different than odors emitting from a restaurant," she said. "Fried food -- that is a smell I consider foul but I have no issue when I am watching a ballgame at Wahconah Park. I believe in peaceful coexistence."
She also said like many of the surrounding businesses, True East Leaf is a family business and the majority of the investors are related and they hope True East Leaf can spark some revitalization in the area and occupy a building that will otherwise continue to deteriorate.
Swegel circled back around to odor and said True East Leaf hired Hill Engineers to design a heating and air system that is at over 90 percent efficiency.
Engineer Michael Wilke of Hill Engineers said all applicable doors will have a vestibule system that uses negative air pressure to remove odor. He said that the doors will be mechanical so they cannot be left open.
"All the doors have vestibules," he said. "The space between the doors is evacuated into the central exhaust system."
Doyle added that captured odor will be sent through a high velocity stack that will blow air upwards through carbon filters away from surrounding businesses.
Fitzgerald changed his focus from smell to sound and thought the high velocity fan that would exhaust the air could be too loud.
Wilke said they have not chosen a fan yet because they have not completed designs. Since they are only in the schematic phase of design work, equipment and components will be picked out in the next stage.
Fitzgerald said he was hesitant to make any approvals without 100 percent design but Wilke said it is quite normal to work through these phases. He said with the board's approval, True East Leaf would expend more funds to further design work ultimately creating construction schematics.
Doyle said more importantly Hill knows this system will work because they have designed them before.
"They aren't starting from scratch here and this is something they have done before," he said.
Fitzgerald made a motion to deny the permit still with concerns over parking and smell -- specifically with questions over how the board could quantify an odor violation.
Permitting Coordinator Nate Joyner said if there is a violation, True East Leaf would have to come before the board. Sullivan added if more than one abutter complains, they will know there is an issue.
Fitzgerald also did not think True East Leaf could afford the proposed plan.
Sullivan said she did not think this was a reason to hold up a permit.
"That is part of the entrepreneurial spirit and they have done what we have asked of them," she said. "They have thought it through."
The motion failed with only Fitzgerald and Esther Bolen voting to deny.
Board member Thomas Goggins voted to approve the permit but asked to up the efficiency percentage of the HVAC system to 95 percent instead of the minimum 90 percent. Fitzgerald switched his vote creating the supermajority needed to pass the special permits.
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