Cambridge’s proposed marijuana dispensary under fire
Editor’s note: After reading the story in the Chronicle, Rep. Dave Rogers expressed his interest to clarify that he did not submit a letter of support for the proposed Greeneway Wellness Foundation dispensary. Rogers: “While I generally support the concept of medical marijuana as administered by very carefully regulated dispensaries, I have never indicated any support of any kind or nature for any specific applicant.”
Proponents for a proposed medical marijuana facility are under fire from residents and Cambridge officials even before a formal application has been submitted to the city.
City staff and at least one public official say dispensary owners lied about local support when they filed their application with the state. Dispensary representatives acknowledged their language was unclear.
The proposed dispensary, called Greeneway Wellness Foundation, would be located at 11 First St., where Finagle a Bagel currently operates. The site is 60 feet outside the two medical marijuana districts adopted by the City Council in December, said owner John Greene.
The location poses another hurdle to final approval, city staff and elected officials said. There is no mechanism to make an exception to the rule, except to change the rule itself, a process which took city staff the better part of a year to codify, said Community Development Department land use planner Jeff Roberts.
Residents are also concerned, they say, because Greene only approached the condominium complex after residents were alerted to the proposed location. Greene said they are in the middle of that outreach now.
In January, the Department of Public Health announced 20 provisional licenses for medical marijuana dispensaries. Greene’s proposed dispensary was the only applicant to list Cambridge as a location to make it to the second phase of the process.
In a word
On the application, Greene lists individual city staffers as people supporting the dispensary. However, City Manager Richard Rossi said he was clear the city would remain neutral.
Rossi said he met with Greene’s team twice, along with other applicants.
“We were clear that we were neutral when we met with them,” Rossi said.
Lee Gianetti, the city’s director of communications, said it was unclear how city employees were added to a list of supporters.
“It is troubling to us that the Massachusetts Department of Public Health did not question why the supporting documents were not included in the application,” Gianetti said. “Just as troubling is why the applicant would make this unsubstantiated claim in the first place.”
City Councilor and state Rep. Tim Toomey submitted a formal letter to the DPH Commissioner, Cheryl Bartlett, going on record to say his support of the application was “grossly exaggerated” in the application and misrepresented the truth. Toomey said he met with Greene twice and acknowledged the “general support” voters had voiced for medical marijuana dispensaries.
“I support a medical marijuana program in Massachusetts, and I want this medicine to be available in a safe, secure location for my constituents who need it,” Toomey said in the letter dated Feb. 7. “However, by failing to verify the support and legality of location claimed by this applicant, DPH has created a situation that will almost certainly result in the delayed siting of a dispensary in Cambridge. At the end of the day, it will unfortunately be patients who suffer the most because of it.”
When asked, Greene deferred to Dan Delaney of the Delaney Policy Group, a former legislative director for DPH policies and procedures, hired as lobbyist and consultant, Greene said. Delaney said he bore “some responsibility” for the language in the application. At one point, the application says, “Specifically, the Greeneway has obtained local support from Cambridge City Manager Richard Rossi, Assistant City Manager Brian Murphy, Public Health Director Claude Jacobs, and several members of the Cambridge City Council, including Kenneth Reeves, Leland Cheung, Vice Mayor Denise Simmons, Dennis Carlone, and with state representatives Tim Toomey and Dave Rogers.”
According to Delaney, DPH changed the requirement for demonstrating local support just over a week before applications were due. They had to change their presentation, and, “lost some of the clarity” in their response.
“It would be clearer, and more accurately express the nature of our interactions with Cambridge officials, to state that we had open and engaged conversations with the listed officials that we felt reflected their support of our approach and effort,” Delaney said. “It didn’t represent a formal endorsement.”
Both Simmons and Cheung confirmed sending letters to the state voicing support for the project in general. Cheung said he would only back the dispensary if it were located in one of the approved medical marijuana districts.
“I support him putting a facility in the district, which the council unanimously passed,” Cheung said, adding the location didn’t become public until after the state had awarded the provisional license.
DPH spokesman, David Kibbe, said only letters of support were given weighted scores, not the application narrative. Cheung’s letter, dated Oct. 22, was submitted with the application. Simmons sent in a letter to the commission on Nov. 18.
Location, location, location
Simmons said she would be open to granting some flexibility in the zoning if need be. She said she’s supportive of the dispensary’s palliative care approach.
The state requires a 500-foot buffer zone between a dispensary and any place “where children usually congregate,” including parks and playgrounds, schools, daycare centers and universities. In Cambridge, that limits options significantly, Greene said. Coupled with the confines of the medical marijuana overlay districts, that doesn’t leave a lot of available real estate. As of Monday, Greene said there was nothing available in the two districts.
“The way they laid it out, it’s quite limiting,” Greene said. “We worked hard to make sure we could get into a location that made sense. We thought we were right in the district and then when it turned out we weren’t, it was too bad.”
Murphy said the city prefers the dispensary be located within the districts. It’s also not the kind of use the city would like to see at a corner retail location, Murphy said.
“We’re wondering if this is the type of use that would really bring vitality to that location,” Murphy said.
Procedurally, there is no mechanism in the zoning ordinance to allow for deviations from the regulations, Roberts said. Although members of the Planning Board acknowledged the limitations of the state’s buffer zones and the city’s own overlay zoning district during discussions about the proposed districts, Roberts said they never incorporated alternatives.
“We didn’t write any provision into the zoning that explains what would happen or explains an option for seeking approval outside the district,” Roberts said.
City Solicitor Nancy Glowa said the applicants would have to either seek a variance and meet the hardship requirements of the Board of Zoning Appeals, or file a rezoning petition, which Murphy called the more likely route.
From the state’s perspective and from a real estate brokerage perspective though, the location is ideal. The Greeneway Wellness application received the highest possible score of 65 points on DPH’s scoring matrix for its proposed location and physical space, according to data provided by DPH.
Mark Browne, principal and co-founder of Berenson Browne Advisors, a real estate brokerage firm helping site retail in the Boston area, said the location from his perspective couldn’t be better. Easy access to the MBTA and regional highways, a short hop from Mass. General Hospital, and proximity to both high- and low-income neighborhoods make the location a good fit, he said.
“Where they’re looking is pretty damn good,” Browne said, although he tempered his response by adding the neighborhood groups in East Cambridge are particularly vocal. “The question is, is this location going to directly impact community residents? The answer would be not as bad as one would think.”
Lore Lyasoff, president of the condo association at 1 First St., which includes 150 Cambridge St., 11 First St., and 17 Otis St. as part of the five-building condo complex, disagrees. She said residents were caught off guard after reading in the Chronicle a dispensary had been approved in Cambridge.
“We’re not North Point,” Lyasoff said, emphasizing the location is not within the proposed overlay district. “We also don’t think that what Mr. Greene is proposing is appropriate because of the residential nature of our complex.”
The location is across the street from the Lechmere MBTA Station and roughly two blocks from the Cambridgeside Galleria Mall. Lyasoff said there are a lot of children in the condominium complex, and she is concerned about the number of patient visits the dispensary would draw. According to the application, the operators estimated roughly 39 visits per day during the first months of operation, increasing to 419 by the end of the year.
Greene said those estimates were based on the assumption that there would not be another dispensary within 20 miles of the site. With Boston, East Boston, Newton and Brookline securing their own licenses, demand would not be as high, he said. Instead, Greene said they expect to end the year with 50-60 patient visits per day.
The fact Greene did not reach out to the association before the application was approved has been a non-starter for any further conversation, Lyasoff said. She said the use of a dispensary at the location seems to violate the master deed, but declined cite the exact provision the dispensary would violate.
“The bottom line is that Greeneway never approached us and never approached residents,” she said, adding Greene had made attempts after residents learned of the location and contacted the owner of Finagle a Bagel. “At that point, we were already past that step. His application had already been approved with this site in it without coming to us prior to submitting the application. So, we don’t see any point in discussing it with him because the location isn’t in the defined zone.”
Kibbe said the dispensaries will not receive full licenses until after they have demonstrated they comply with local regulations.