HAVERHILL — Two areas of the city that were being targeted for a potential medical marijuana dispensary have been given a reprieve until at least Feb. 25.
A zoning proposal the City Council has been considering would have allowed the facilities in either the Ward Hill Business Park in Bradford or the inner-city Hale Street industrial area just outside Lafayette Square. The proposals have drawn opposition from neighbors in both areas, including a petition signed by 100 Ward Hill residents.
City officials began last night’s public hearing on the issue by filing a new proposal that eliminated the Ward Hill park from the medical marijuana zone and narrowed the proposal to a section of the Hale Street industrial area, which includes about dozens of properties on Hale Street.
Valerio Romano, a lawyer for a medical marijuana facility applicant eyeing Haverhill, said his client has an agreement to lease a property on Hale Street and open one of the first medical marijuana facilities in the state, pending council approval of the zoning.
That approval didn’t happen, however.
Councilors said they had too little time to consider the new proposal, which they said they received Monday. They voted unanimously last night to continue the city’s temporary ban on such facilities to Feb. 25.
Councilors also sent the proposal to a study committee that is expected to hold public meetings before deciding where the facilities will be allowed.
At least two applicants for medical marijuana facilities in the area are targeting Haverhill — the Cardiac Arrhythmia Syndromes Foundation based in Andover and Creative Botanical Development, according to state applications for dispensary licenses that are being made available in Essex County. Romano declined to identify his client last night, but did make an argument in favor of the Hale Street location.
“Haverhill should approve the Hale Street zone for the benefit of people who are sick and need it (medical marijuana) to feel better,’’ he said.
Earlier this year, state Attorney General Martha Coakley ruled communities cannot prohibit dispensaries from opening within their borders, but can regulate the specific locations where they are allowed.
In recent months, the Haverhill council has passed a series of moratoriums on marijuana centers, while officials develop a proposal that would limit them to specific areas of the city. The previous moratorium expired yesterday.
If and when the zone is approved, proposals from specific applicants would require a special permit from the council to go forward, officials said.
William Pillsbury, the city’s economic development director, served on the committee that developed the zoning proposal. Last night, he said he pushed to remove Ward Hill from the proposal because he didn’t want to see a medical marijuana facility go into one of several high-profile vacant properties in the Ward Hill business park.
“I think the current proposal might be good, but it feels like we are rushing this and that it hasn’t been properly vetted,” Councilor Michael Hart said. “We need to involve the public in this process and educate them that these centers don’t bring crime and problems that a lot of people are worried about.”
City Solicitor William Cox advised the council that the city’s moratorium could be extended as long as the council is making a good-faith effort to pass zoning to allow them somewhere in Haverhill.
“The moratoriums are to give communities time to act,” Cox said. “They can’t be used to delay. Those who use them to delay or stop these facilities are going to be challenged soon. And it’s my opinion they are going to lose.”
Councilor Mary Ellen Daly O’Brien said advocates for medical marijuana facilities are doing a terrible job promoting them.
“As a nurse, I’m in favor of medicinal marijuana,” Daly O’Brien said “It is unbelievably helpful for people with chronic illnesses with pain and nausea. But I also feel this (zoning proposal) is being pushed on us tonight, and I don’t appreciate it.”
Several residents at the hearing made arguments against a facility on Hale Street.
“This would have a terrible effect on a community that already has a bad stigma and is trying to improve,” said Michael Schroth, 20 York St., an area in the Acre neighborhood near Hale Street. “The Acre is not the place to put this. We have great people and families here.”
John Cuneo, director of Community Action, a non-profit organization that provides services to poor people, said his organization operates two homes with 22 children ages 1 to 7 near Hale Street.
“A lot of this opposition is based on fear of the unknown,” Cuneo said. “But the truth is we don’t know what the impacts will be. ... I think we should look at the industrial parks, which are more remote and have fewer homes in the vicinity.”
The use of medical marijuana in Massachusetts was approved by 63 percent of the state’s voters last year. In Haverhill, 60 percent of voters supported the measure, which removed criminal and civil penalties for medical marijuana use for people with certain medical conditions.
The new law provides for 35 nonprofit medical marijuana treatment centers throughout the state, with no more than five in each county. The centers may grow, process and provide marijuana to patients who have a prescription from a doctor.
The state Department of Public Health, which is reviewing applications and will issue certificates, announced Sept. 23 that 154 of the 181 initial applicants were invited to phase two. Eighteen applicants filed for locations in Essex County, and 16 of those were invited to phase two.
State health officials have said they will weigh a number of factors when deciding which applications to approve, including proximity to other dispensaries to avoid clustering.