Zoning Board of Appeals: zoning permit for a registered marijuana dispensary

Discounting pleas from around Brookline Village to protect the neighborhoods, a unanimous panel of the Zoning Board of Appeals granted a special permit to New England Treatment Access (NETA), now headed by Arnon Vered of Swampscott. It allows the firm to locate a registered dispensary of medical marijuana on the former site of the Brookline Savings Bank at 160 Washington St. in Brookline Village.

The former bank building enjoys a regal view of historic Village Square, the intersection of Boylston, Washington, High and Walnut Sts. and the former Morss Ave. Built in Beaux Arts style, it has an exterior of gray sandstone and rose marble. The 20-ft high interior features mahogany panels and columns and a glass dome. The bank vaults remain in working condition.

When the Brookline Savings Bank moved in 1922 from its former location at 366 Washington St.–across from the main library–to new headquarters at 160 Washington St., Village Square was the commercial heart of Brookline. Streets were striped with trolley tracks in five directions–up Brookline Ave. into Boston, along the former Worcester Turnpike, now Route 9 connecting Boston with Newton, and up Washington St. through Harvard Sq. of Brookline to Washington Sq. and Brighton and through Coolidge Corner to the Allston Depot of the Boston & Albany Rail Road.

The bank property, as shown in a 1927 atlas, was one lot of 6,509 sq ft, with a few parking spaces in the back–located near what was then the Brookline Branch of the Boston & Albany Rail Road, now the Riverside (D) branch of the MBTA Green Line. Its neighbors were a bustling variety of businesses and residences, as well as industry and culture: Boston Consolidated Gas, Holtzer Cabot Electric, Metropolitan Coal and Lyceum Hall. Now most of that context has been lost to redevelopment. The Colonnade Buildings a block up Washington St. can remind one of a former age.

The hearing began at 7 pm Thursday, April 23, in the sixth-floor meeting room at Town Hall. There were several business representatives and lawyers, plus an audience of around 40. From the outset, opponents of the permit appeared to outnumber supporters. The background had been an election, two town meetings and more than 20 local board and committee hearings and reviews. Other steps remain ahead for the dispensary to operate.

Business plans: NETA was represented by Franklin Stearns from K&L Gates in Boston and by Norton Arbelaez, a lawyer who works with registered dispensaries of medical marijuana. According to Rick Bryant of Stantec in Boston, who advises NETA on transportation issues, the company expects to distribute about 4,000 pounds of marijuana products a year from the Brookline location.

At a typical price of $300 an ounce, reported from states where similar dispensaries now operate, that could provide gross revenue around $20 million a year from a Brookline operation. Company representatives confirmed that the company plans to operate from 10 am to 7 pm every day of the week. That could result in more than $50,000 a day in Brookline-based transactions.

According to Mr. Bryant, estimates derived from a dispensary in Colorado indicate a peak of about 30 customer visits to the site per hour. The former Brookline Savings Bank site now includes an adjacent lot to the north, 3,154 sq ft under common ownership, where a building present in 1927 has been removed. That provides most of the land for 11 parking spaces that were diagrammed in NETA plans. Mr. Bryant predicted peak usage of eight parking spaces, but all those on site are to be reserved for customer use.

NETA also showed two spaces sized for handicapped parking on an adjacent lot to the west, at 19 Boylston St. That property houses a Boston Edison electric substation, owned by a subsidiary of Eversource. According to Mr. Stearns of K&L Gates, NETA will open a production facility in Franklin, MA, and another registered dispensary in Northampton. All deliveries are to depart from the Franklin site, not from Brookline or Northampton.

Amanda Rossitano, a former aide to Brookline state representative Frank Smizik who works for NETA, said the company will have about a dozen employees on site. Jim Segel, a former Brookline state representative now living in Needham, spoke on behalf of NETA, saying that the company “is going to be a leader in doing things right…a good neighbor and citizen. It will enhance the neighborhood.”

Questions: The Appeals panel for this hearing consisted of Jesse Geller, a lawyer who is the board’s chair, Christopher Hussey, an architect, and Avi Liss, a lawyer. Mr. Hussey led questions, asking about security plans. Mr. Arbelaez described procedures and facilities, including a “secure vestibule” for entry to the service facilities, with a security officer and a parking attendant on duty during business hours.

Mr. Liss asked about other potential Brookline locations. Mr. Stearns said several had been investigated, one near the intersection of Beacon St. and Summit Ave. Some property owners, he said, would not lease or sell, while circumstances at other locations proved less suitable. Mr. Hussey asked about apparently recent changes to parking plans. Mr. Stearns said NETA had responded to comments from the Planning Board.

Arguments: When Mr. Geller asked for comments in favor of the permit, other than people known as working with NETA only Deborah Costolloe from Stanton Rd. spoke. “Many people are in favor of this business in the Village,” she said. She contrasted the potential for traffic with the operations of Trader Joe’s in Coolidge Corner. Trader Joe’s does “vastly more business,” she said, while it has only “a small amount of parking.” The real issue for the opponents, said Ms. Costolloe, “is the nature of the business, not parking.”

Over 20 spoke in opposition, many living or working within several blocks of the bank site or representing them. Art Krieger, of Anderson and Krieger in Cambridge, spoke on behalf of nearby business owners–including Puppet Showplace, Inner Space, Groovy Baby Music and Little Children Schoolhouse. Citing general requirements for a special permit, he said the site was not an appropriate location, that the business would adversely affect neighborhoods and that it would create a nuisance.

Mr. Krieger tried to invoke default regulations for a dispensary that apply when a community does not create its own. Brookline, he said, does not set minimum distances from “places where children congregate,” comparable to state defaults. Mr. Liss of the Appeals panel disagreed. “I read it differently,” he said, “because there’s a local bylaw.” Brookline’s bylaw prohibits dispensary locations in the same building as a day-care facility.

Mr. Krieger called reliance on traffic data from a dispensary in Colorado “faith-based permitting.” Parking at the former bank site, he claimed, “will cause safety problems for vehicles and pedestrians…much more traffic throughout the day than the bank.” Issues of traffic and parking were to recur several times in comments from opponents, as predicted by Ms. Costolloe.

Historic site: Merrill Diamond, a former Brookline resident and a real estate developer, took a different direction. Mr. Diamond is well known for historic preservation and adaptive reuse. Among his local projects have been the Chestnut Hill Waterworks and Kendall Crescent–repurposing the historic Sewall School and Town Garage along Cypress, Franklin and Kendall Sts.

Mr. Diamond regretted reuse of the former Brookline Savings Bank site for a dispensary, saying he had tried to start a more creative project combining residential and retail spaces. His bid on the property was rejected, he said, because it did not commit to an early closing date. If the proposed dispensary doesn’t open, he said he will submit another bid.

Betsy Shure Gross of Edgehill Rd., a Precinct 5 town meeting member, had similar outlooks. She recalled the Brookline Village Citizens Revitalization Committee from the 1970s, when parts of the neighborhoods looked bleak. “I voted for medical marijuana,” said Ms. Gross, but what happened “is bait and switch.” She criticized siting a dispensary in a major historical property, saying it will have “adverse and negative impacts.”

Crime: Introducing himself as a member of the criminal justice faculty at Northeastern, Prof. Simon Singer of Davis Ave. allowed he could not prove that a dispensary would increase crime, but he said such a facility “is known to have an adverse effect on crime.” According to Prof. Singer, the Appeals panel should “err on the side of those who are against it.”

George Vien of Davis Ave., a former federal prosecutor, tried last fall to change Brookline’s zoning standards for registered dispensaries of medical marijuana, bringing a petition article to town meeting. He argued vigorously against what he called “violating the schoolyard statute,” distributing marijuana “within 1,000 yards of a playground, school or public housing project.” Town meeting was told the arguments were questionable and that any risks applied to dispensary operators, not to the town. It declined to change zoning standards.

At the permit hearing, Mr. Vien continued his arguments. He described himself as familiar with Brookline’s public housing, saying, “I grew up in public housing…went to old Lincoln School in Brookline Village…You are creating a secondary drug market right in the housing project.” He urged the Appeals panel to deny the permit: “Err on the side of at-risk kids.”

Traffic and parking: Gordon Bennett of Davis Ave., a close ally of Mr. Vien in last fall’s town-meeting effort, spoke about traffic impacts from the proposed dispensary. An estimated “two percent of the population will use medical marijuana,” he said, and “right now there are no other [registered dispensaries] in the state…there will be a much larger increase in traffic than predicted.”

Elizabeth Childs of Walnut St., a physician who was also an outspoken dispensary opponent last fall, referred to the state limit on purchases, saying “ten ounces of marijuana is an incredible amount of product, a lot of cash too…10 am to 7 pm seven days a week is completely inappropriate.” With entry to and exit from the bank site’s parking only “going west on Route 9…traffic will be going through our neighborhood.” She urged the Appeals panel to “protect the neighborhood…deny the permit.”

Angela Hyatt of Walnut St., an architect who is a Precinct 5 town meeting member and a member of the Advisory Committee, lives about a block from the former bank site. She criticized the plans, particularly plans for parking, as “inaccurate and misleading.” She noted that slope and driveway width do not meet zoning standards. However, parking at the site reflects usage and designs that pre-date Brookline’s zoning requirements, so that they are “grandfathered” unless basic use of the site changes–for example, from retail to residential.

Claire Stampfer of Sargent Crossway, another Precinct 5 town meeting member, also objected to traffic impacts, saying, “The use as a bank is totally different…fewer hours, no holidays and weekends…It is an intrusion into Brookline Village.” NETA. she said, “should sell only by delivery…not on site.”

Virginia LaPlante, a Precinct 6 town meeting member, had similar reactions, calling it a “fantasy talking about cars parking there…We were misled in town meeting. I voted for medical marijuana.” Ms. LaPlante said NETA “could have an office in 2 Brookline Place” (a planned 8-story office building). “I’m sure Children’s Hospital would welcome them there.” At a meeting last year, a NETA representative said Children’s Hospital had rejected the firm as a potential tenant. Hospital physicians announced a policy against prescribing medical marijuana.

Reaching a decision: After more than two hours of discussion, finding no one else wanting to speak, Mr. Geller closed the hearing. The Appeals panel began to weigh the arguments. Mr. Liss said potential security issues were not a matter of zoning but of management. They would need to be reviewed with an application for an operating license, to be heard by the Board of Selectmen. Annual operating reviews would be able to consider problems and revoke a license or add conditions.

Mr. Geller said that when enacting zoning allowing a dispensary, town meeting “passed judgment on the risk level.” Traffic hazards were being mitigated by an approved transportation demand management plan. The site is appropriate, he said, “secure, contained…isolated by surroundings…This building could be used for a better purpose, but that’s not a standard under the [zoning] bylaw.” The panel agreed and approved the permit.

– Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, April 25, 2015


Brookline Village walking tours: Washington Street at Route 9, High Street Hill Neighborhood Association, Brookline, MA, c. 2005

Atlas of the Town of Brookline, Massachusetts, G.W. Bromley & Co. (Philadelphia, PA), 1927 (71 MB)

Licensing Review Committee: registered marijuana dispensary, Brookline Beacon, January 29, 2015

Craig Bolon, Medical marijuana in Brookline: will there be a site?, Brookline Beacon, December 7, 2014

Fall town meeting: bylaw changes, no new limits on marijuana dispensaries, Brookline Beacon, November 18, 2014

Advisory Committee: no new restrictions on marijuana dispensaries, Brookline Beacon, October 31, 2014

Zoning Bylaw Committee: no new restrictions on marijuana dispensaries, Brookline Beacon, October 28, 2014

Registered marijuana dispensary regulations, Town of Brookline, MA, 2014

Implementation of an Act for the Humanitarian Medical Use of Marijuana, 105 CMR 725, Massachusetts Department of Public Health, May 24, 2013

An Act for the Humanitarian Medical Use of Marijuana, St. 2012 C. 369, Massachusetts General Court, November, 2012 (enacted by voters through a ballot initiative)

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