HAVERHILL — By the end of August the city may get two more marijuana sales shops, bringing Haverhill's total to five — but not before angry neighbors have their say.
Neighbors are upset because city zoning designed to keep pot shops from being close to each other contains a loophole. That makes the reverse possible for the Amesbury Road neighborhood, where two proposed shops are seeking licenses from the city this month.
Amesbury Road residents near Northern Essex Community College face the possibility of one pot shop moving into the old Seafood Etc. restaurant, and another moving onto nearby land behind a Mobil gas station.
If the City Council approves licenses for those shops, Haverhill will have a total of five marijuana retail shops. Three others have already received council approval — one at the Haverhill-Plaistow line, another on River Street, and a third at the old Sons of Italy Hall downtown.
Earlier this year, neighbors packed informational meetings about the two shops proposed for Amesbury Road — Mellow Fellows, which wants to open at the former Seafood Etc. restaurant, 330 Amesbury Road; and Haverwell Market LLC, which proposes a shop at 399 Amesbury Road behind the Mobil station. Neighbors expressed anger about the possibility of two marijuana sales businesses being so close together.
The City Council is bracing for a large crowd and heated discussion over those two proposals on the night of Aug. 20, when councilors will decide whether to grant operating permits. That meeting will be in the City Hall auditorium to allow space for a large crowd.
City rules say a pot shop zone must have at least a half-mile between shops. The shops proposed for Amesbury Road are only a fifth of a mile apart, but because they are not in the same zone a loophole in the rule has emerged.
The shop locations are at the outer edges of two zones that are next to each other — one is designated by the city as the Amesbury Road East Area and the other the Amesbury Road West Area. So although the shops would be closer than a half-mile apart, they may be protected from the distance rule because they are in different zones.
The political debate about how to handle the shops is escalating as Aug. 20 approaches.
City Councilor William Macek said when creating the zones where retail marijuana shops could be located, the intent was to avoid having a "concentration" of pot shops in close proximity.
"I don't believe it was ever anticipated to create this type of conflict," he said about the shops proposed for Amesbury Road. "Every special permit is judged upon its individual merit. If both of them meet the requirements of a special permit, then the only impediment would be a waiver for the half-mile separation requirement."
Macek said the Aug. 20 hearing will bring forward the merits of each proposal, and that it's possible both requests for special permits could pass, one could pass, or neither could pass.
"You would need a legal basis for denying a special permit," he said.
Councilor Thomas Sullivan said he would like both shops to apply for waivers of the distance rule prior to making their presentations.
"To me, that would be the fair thing to do," Sullivan said. "When we enacted the half-mile rule, we did not envision this situation happening. The fair thing to do is to apply for and grant both waivers, so it takes that (the distance issue) off the table. That is something I would support."
Macek said he too would support that.
Councilor Tim Jordan said he's relying on the expertise of City Solicitor William Cox to determine the process for the Aug. 20 hearings.
"I'm not an attorney, so I rely on the city solicitor to say how the procedure is done," Jordan said. "But coming from a business background, I want to hear the strengths and weaknesses of plan A and plan B, and judge them on that."
Jordan said he has concerns about how close the two proposed sites are to each other. He said the distance is in violation of the ordinance the council created.
"I'll listen with an open mind, but I don't see myself going for two in that close proximity," Jordan said. "I've talked to people living nearby who don't want anything (any pot shops), which I don't think is realistic, but to stick two next to each other, it doesn't seem fair to people living nearby.
"I've spoken to the city solicitor, and it's clear we have an ordinance that two shops should not be located within a half-mile, which is reason for me to want to vote no on at least on one of them, however, I will listen to what they have to say," Jordan said.
Macek said that when the Wingate Assisted Living project on North Avenue was denied by the City Council, Wingate appealed to a state land court, which sent the project back to the city so a compromise could be worked out. Macek said those negotiations resulted in a decrease in the number of assisted living and dementia units compared to the original proposal.
"When that kind of remand is given by the court, it indicates a strong likelihood that the court will rule in favor of the applicant's appeal and grant the special permit," Macek said.
In June, the council approved marijuana sales permits for Full Harvest Moonz, which plans to open near the Plaistow line; and Haverhill Stem LLC, which plans to open at the site of the former Sons of Italy hall, 124 Washington St.
Last month, the council granted a special permit to open a cannabis store called CNA Stores in a small business plaza at 558 River St.