HAVERHILL — Although voters across the state and in Haverhill voted in 2016 to allow recreational marijuana sales in Massachusetts, City Councilor Joseph Bevilacqua wants to put the issue to another vote in Haverhill.
Bevilacqua tried and failed at this week's council meeting to convince his colleagues to put the pot shop issue to a special vote of Haverhill residents.
The ballot question Bevilacqua was seeking would have given Haverhill voters the opportunity to reduce the number of pot shops in the city to below the six that the state has mandated, and, as a second option, to ban pot shops entirely.
City Solicitor William Cox said passing a ballot question would require a majority vote by voters. Should such a question pass, the council would then need to amend the current zoning ordinance, he said.
Despite the council refusing to support Bevilacqua's proposal, Cox said a ballot question could go before Haverhill voters if a member of the public were to collect the signatures of 15 percent of registered voters on a petition in support the ballot question.
Cox noted, however, that placing a question on the November ballot will not prevent the five pending applications for pot shop permits in Haverhill from coming before the council. The applicants are grandfathered by state law from the restrictions which could be imposed by revising current zoning laws, he said.
City Councilor William Macek referred to Bevilacqua's effort to have a ballot question as "closing the barn door after all the horses got away."
"We're in the pipeline for what the state has mandated," Macek said, adding that the voters have spoken, their word should be heard and there should not be another ballot question.
"It's a large majority of people who feel that way," Macek said of allowing shop to sell marijuana.
Lawsuit adds to debate
The debate over a ballot question comes as several downtown businessmen are suing the city to block a pot shop from moving onto Washington Street in the heart of downtown. The suit says the city acted improperly when setting up the zoning that allows pot shops to move into the area.
The suit states the zoning violates the constitutional rights of neighboring property owners, violates federal narcotics laws and is detrimental to the city and its residents.
The suit lists the plaintiffs as Bradford Brooks, a local real estate professional and Llyod Jennings, a local contractor, both of whom are listed in the suit as trustees of L&B Realty Trust; and Steve Dimakis of Mark's Deli, who is listed as a trustee of the Evthokia Realty Trust.
Cox said the suit alleges the zoning that allows for a pot shop in that area of the downtown is not legal and was not done correctly. The plaintiffs are asking the state Land Court to rule on the validity of that zoning, he said. The suit specifically targets 124 Washington St., which for years housed the Sons of Italy and which is where Caroline Pineau has proposed opening a pot shop under the name Haverhill Stem LLC. The suit indicates Pineau is leasing the building from The Westland Group LLC, which is also named in the suit.
On the night of Jan. 15, the City Council passed a zoning ordinance regarding recreational marijuana sales, which pushed forward the process of bringing cannabis to the city more than two years after residents across Massachusetts voted in favor of legalizing the drug as part of the statewide vote. The vote was 7-1. Bevilacqua voted against the ordinance, while Councilor Michael McGonagle was not present for the meeting.
Cox noted that just because Haverhill is mandated to allow six pot shops, which is based on a percentage of liquor licenses in the city, the council is not obligated to issue any specific number of special permits to open pot shops. All special permit requests require a minimum of six affirmative votes from the nine-member council, he said.
Councilor honors 'will of the majority'
Several councilors this week opposed Bevilacqua's proposal for another ballot vote, saying that although they might be unhappy with pot shops coming to the city, they must uphold the will of voters.
Councilors Macek, Mary Ellen Daly O'Brien, Melinda Barrett and Colin LePage voted against Bevilacqua's request, while Council President John Michitson and Councilor Timothy Jordan supported the ballot vote proposal.
Councilor Thomas Sullivan was absent while Councilor Michael McGonagle stepped out of the council chambers, citing a conflict of interest. He has purchased a building that is a proposed site for a pot shop.
"I'm setting my personal feelings and concerns aside as I respect and uphold the will of the majority of Haverhill voters who voted in support of the 2016 ballot question," LePage said of his vote against Bevilacqua's proposal. "There are about 44,000 registered voters in the city, and 29,334 of them voted on ballot question 4, with a majority voting in favor."
On July 24 of last year, the council discussed having a ballot question that could have prohibited or limited the number of marijuana retail locations.
"Why didn't we do anything 10 months ago before we went through all of this, having more hearings, when there was an opportunity to put it in front or vote on it then, and that hasn't seemed to change," LePage said. "I did not vote for this medically or recreationally, but I can't disrespect what voters want."
In the 2016 statewide ballot question, Haverhill voters approved pot shops by a margin of 54 percent to 46 percent, or 16,176 in favor to 13,158 opposed, according to Cox.
Daly O'Brien said she would not go against the will of the voters and would not support Bevilacqua's ballot question proposal.
"I feel that I have to do the right thing and go with the wishes of the majority," she said.
Jordan, who supported Bevilacqua's proposal, said it wasn't obvious that the 2016 vote to legalize marijuana would result in having pot shops in Haverhill.
"I believe it was strategic wording to get the question passed," Jordan said. "This is our chance to get control back on the local level and to give a choice to our residents to say how many of these establishments do you want."
Petition for ballot question uncertain
Bevilacqua told The Eagle-Tribune after this week's council vote that he does not know if any members of the public want to file a petition to force a ballot question. He would not comment on whether he would like to see that happen.
"From what I've heard from residents, they are disappointed that the council did not give them an opportunity to voice their opinion, considering all the new information that has come out about negative health impacts of marijuana, and because Haverhilll's zoning locations for pot shops were not known at the time of the 2016 vote," Bevilacqua said.
Bevilacqua is president of the Merrimack Valley Chamber of Commerce, a private organization that supports the interests of business in Haverhill and other valley communities. One of the pot shops proposed for Haverhill would be located downtown, where the business community has made a strong comeback in recent years.
Bevilacqua's effort comes as the council prepares to vote on whether to allow the first pot shop proposed for Haverhill to locate in the city.
Full Harvest Moonz hopes to open a recreational store at 101 Plaistow Road, currently the site of Jimmy K's restaurant, which plans move to a new building.
A vote on whether to issue the first special permit for a pot shop in Haverhill was scheduled to happen at a council meeting two weeks ago, but was postponed to Tuesday night, then was postponed to next week's council meeting due to the absence of Councilor Thomas Sullivan. Councilor McGonagle stepped out due to his conflict of interest, leaving a total of seven councilors at Tuesday's meeting.
"The applicants for a special permit have historically been extended the courtesy of being able to request a postponement of a hearing whenever there is less than a full council seated for a scheduled meeting," Macek told The Eagle-Tribune. "When it became known that Councilor Sullivan could not attend, Council President Michitson contacted the attorney for the applicant, who chose to postpone it to next week."
According to City Clerk Linda Koutoulas, the following organizations have applied for special permits to open retail marijuana shops in Haverhill: Full Harvest Moonz; Haverhill Stem LLC, which is looking to open a shop at 124 Washington St.; CNA Stores Inc., which proposes a shop at 558 River St.; Mellow Fellows, which wants to open a shop at the former Seafood Etc. restaurant at 330 Amesbury Road; and Haverwell Market LLC, which proposes a shop at 399 Amesbury Road behind the Mobil gas station.