FALL RIVER — Efforts to create new zoning regulations for the city’s cannabis industry are underway, but the impacts those regulations might have on roughly a dozen dispensaries and other businesses already trying to open remain unclear.
“If we do pass a bylaw, let’s say requiring a special permit and limiting these to certain zones, what applications does that apply to? Does it apply to previous letters of non-opposition?” said City Planner Bill Roth. “It’s more of a legal question and while we’re crafting the bylaw, that will be something that has to be discussed.”
The City Council voted last week to request the city’s planning department move forward with “a public process establishing thoughtful zoning regulations” related to Fall River-based cannabis businesses. The vote came roughly 10 months after the grand opening of the city’s first recreational cannabis dispensary, Northeast Alternatives. At least another 14 proposals are in various stages on the local and state level to get the licenses needed to operate cannabis businesses in Fall River.
Exactly which businesses will be affected by the new regulations and which will be grandfathered in has yet to be determined, but Roth has already begun researching what new policies Fall River could adopt for future businesses.
As outlined in the state’s cannabis sales laws, Fall River is subject to Massachusetts guidelines for where dispensaries and marijuana cultivation facilities can be built. No marijuana establishment can operate within 500 feet of any pre-existing public or private school that teaches students in kindergarten or in grades 1 through 12.
Outside those limits, there has been little Fall River officials can use regulation-wise to police how dispensaries can open and where they can operate.
“Right now, we have no zoning so it’s just looked at as retail sales and that’s allowed in most of the commercial districts,” said Roth. “It’s retail and if you look at the parking requirements for retail as an example, it’s truly minimal.”
A required number of parking spaces for customers and employees at cannabis businesses would be one component Roth said he’s considering, including in Fall River’s new regulations. He said he would likely borrow from the zoning used by other Massachusetts communities and that he has already been talking to other planners who have drafted their own resolutions.
“All of my colleagues I’ve talked to have said parking, site selection and not creating traffic problems are the biggest issues,” he said. “On a lot of this stuff you don’t really reinvent the wheel. When I was in Fairhaven I wrote the medical marijuana bylaw, so I’ve got a grasp of what should be in there for the city.”
Roth said that he is also looking into requiring proposed businesses to secure a special permit from the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals before they can move forward with construction.
“That would give the ZBA a bit more latitude to look at the use and impact on specific sites,” he said, referring to neighborhood impact as one issue ZBA members would likely have to evaluate when issuing permits.
The city would also likely need to determine whether it wants to limit cannabis businesses to specific zoning uses, like places where industrial or commercial uses are allowed, or to certain geographic areas of the city. Regardless of which option the city chooses, Roth said it would have to ensure that limitations set by the city, combined with existing guidelines from the state, wouldn’t overlap in a way that would completely prevent businesses from opening in Fall River.
“It’s almost like you’re creating a moratorium through a bylaw,” he said.
In the three years since adult-use cannabis sales were legalized in Massachusetts, numerous other communities have been at work to put rules on the books limiting where new businesses can operate.
New Bedford has limited cannabis businesses to three types of industrial zones. City officials there also expanded the state’s 500-foot buffer zone to not only include schools but also nurseries, daycares, preschools, parks, playgrounds, national historic parks, churches, libraries, substance abuse facilities and other cannabis facilities. New Bedford has also explored implementing a 200-foot buffer zone around residential parcels of land.
Fall River only has one dispensary open for adult-use sales, and several others licensed to sell medical marijuana. Since it began selling recreational marijuana in January, Northeast Alternatives has become the subject of a citizen’s petition authored by abutting residential neighbors asking the city to intervene in the increased traffic they’ve reported seeing.
About a dozen other businesses, including cannabis cultivation and processing facilities, are also working toward opening in Fall River. Though not yet open, several of those proposals have also come under fire from groups of residents opposing facility locations.