Boston Proposal Would Cut City’s Zoning Board of Appeal from Cannabis Dispensary Licensing Process
Adobe Stock

Boston Proposal Would Cut City’s Zoning Board of Appeal from Cannabis Dispensary Licensing Process

The proposal is meant to streamline local licensing. Opponents see it as a worrisome end-around as more businesses are expected to open in Boston.

September 15, 2022

The city of Boston currently boasts 14 licensed dispensaries, but a proposal from the mayor’s office may allow a rush of new retail businesses to set up shop.

Mayor Michelle Wu recently announced plans to cut the city’s Zoning Board of Appeal (ZBA) from the cannabis dispensary approval process. Typically, both the ZBA and the Boston Cannabis Board would offer local approval (or not) to prospective business owners. From there, the business would proceed onto the state level.

Under this proposed code amendment, the Boston Cannabis Board alone would decide the local fate of eager cannabis retailers.

At a public hearing earlier this month, officials from the mayoral administration insisted that this change will streamline the overall licensing process. Business owners and neighbors alike would have a clearer understanding of how cannabis might fit into the local economic development landscape. The main idea, according to Bryan Glascock, a deputy director at the Boston Planning and Development Agency, is to simplify the regulatory context for this emerging market within the city.

Prospective business owners, by and large, support the move.

“Please, end the system of double jeopardy,” equity applicant Jody Mendoza said at the hearing, according to the Boston Globe. His dispensary plans were rejected by the ZBA after his business had already won a license. “Equity applicants have the highest hill to get over, but when [we’re] faced with going in front of the ZBA, it’s another opportunity for people to come out and stop us. Please end the confusion and give us a chance.” 

Mendoza’s business is one of seven that have received approval from the Boston Cannabis Board only to be denied by the ZBA. In one case, the ZBA denial brought on a lawsuit from a jilted applicant.

The ZBA, variations of which exist in nearly every municipality in the U.S., oversees local zoning compliance and provides a platform for local residents and businesses to seek exceptions to certain rules (e.g. those residents and businesses who may want to build a commercial property closer to the sidewalk than what is allowed, particularly in areas that abut residential neighborhoods). It’s also a platform for local residents and businesses to voice opposition to those exceptions.

As the Globe reports: City Councilman Michael Flaherty pointed out this fundamental aspect of the ZBA: “A lot of folks voted for [legal adult-use cannabis] but don’t necessarily want it in their neighborhood.”

The ZBA is seen as a bulwark against a concentration of any one type of business in any one particular neighborhood.

Here’s the Globe’s Dan Adams with the broader state context:

Critics urged the planning agency to leave the ZBA in charge of siting marijuana firms and awarding exceptions to Boston’s required half-mile buffer between cannabis facilities. (The buffer was intended to prevent clusters of pot shops, but the city’s geography means officials will need to allow some marijuana retailers closer to one another to meet a state minimum of around 52 recreational shops.)

Public comments were provided to the Boston Planning & Development Agency, which must now decide whether to present this proposed amendment to its board. If the board were to approve the amendment, it would then be sent to the Boston Zoning Commission for continued debate.