Ceding to an impassioned appeal from residents, the Oak Bluffs planning board Thursday night agreed to amend a proposed medical marijuana bylaw and eliminate the majority of Dukes County avenue from a dispensary overlay district.
The amendment that will be presented to voters at Tuesday’s special town meeting would allow dispensaries by special permit at two lots on Dukes County avenue near School street.
After lengthy and heated public discussion, the board decided that these were the only two parcels in the original overlay that conform to state and proposed local regulations prohibiting dispensaries within a 500-foot radius of a public park. The lots sit directly across the street from the Camp Ground parking lot. The initial planning board proposal included nearly 50 properties located within the business zone.
The overlay district would also include a small area near the hospital, two parcels on the Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road near Goodale’s sand pit and one location on Holmes Hole Road near the Tisbury town line. These were all part of the board’s previous proposal that will appear before voters Tuesday.
The public hearing saw vocal opposition from Dukes County avenue residents who were concerned about the adverse impact of a marijuana dispensary in their neighborhood.
The residents called on the board to eliminate the avenue from the proposal. “Most of us are here because we think Dukes County avenue is a wildly inappropriate place for a dispensary,” said Ryan Bushey.
Robert E. Clermont, general manager of the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association, which is included in the overlay district, said many of the 312 families living there have children. “There are loads and loads of children that use the library [and walk] up and down School street,” he said.
Arguing that the zone was placed in the middle of a highly-trafficked pedestrian area, residents asked the planning board to explain their reasoning.
Board members said they included the business district because they wanted to provide a viable option to applicants.
Throughout the night, planning board member Erik Albert maintained that the dispensaries should be treated like a business and be allow in commercial districts.
But selectman Gail Barmakian disagreed.
“The state did not mean to make this a profit-making business,” she said. “It is a dispensary . . . if you look at the towns that are zoning and doing this, I don’t know of one that has put it in the business district. Most of those towns and cities are zoning them out of their business districts.”
Others grappled with the nature of the dispensary.
Sue Dawson, who owns the Alison Shaw Gallery on Dukes County avenue with her partner Ms. Shaw, said she expected many of the clients of the dispensary would not be legitimate, card-carrying customers. “I am picturing it in my mind as a liquor store,” she said.
Planning board member Kris Chvatal also said he struggled to classify the dispensary. “Any metaphor I can think of seems to demand the commercial zoning,” he said. He said from that point of view, presenting a viable option to applicants seemed appropriate. “Sometimes Oak Bluffs gets the reputation for being a very hard place to do business in, and you can understand why,” he said. “This is a legitimately-sanctioned business, and we are trying to exclude it from the commercial district.”
Mr. Albert said he had a few friends who would benefit from medical marijuana treatments, and while the proposed overlay was a short walk from his residence, he didn’t think it would have a significant impact on the town. “I don’t see this as being the inferno coming to destroy the character of Oak Bluffs,” he said.
Board members said it was difficult to find areas of town appropriate for dispensaries. While 74 per cent of the Island voted to back the new state law last year that allows nonprofits to grow, process and provide medical marijuana, board member Bo Fehl said Islanders appear to have a different view when it comes to carrying out the law. “Now they are saying, not in my backyard,” Mr. Fehl said.
No one has come forward to offer their own residential area for zoning, Mr. Chvatal said. “No one has said, well my neighborhood is good,” he said. Later, he asked the public: “Which residential district would you like to burden with this?”
Planning board members said they expect the state will not approve more than one dispensary for the county. For that reason, they said it would have been helpful if the state allowed the towns to collaborate and decide on an appropriate location together. Instead, “the law was written to discourage regionalization,” Mr. Chvatal said.
Ultimately, the board agreed to limit the overlay district to a small area of Dukes County avenue.
Voters will have the last say at Tuesday’s special town meeting.