HOLYOKE — The Paper City — a city so welcoming to the marijuana industry that some have jokingly referred to it as “Rolling Paper City” — has, for the moment, effectively banned new marijuana manufacturing and cultivation businesses within city limits.
But only close observers of city government are likely to know that. There was no citywide ballot question to impose any kind of moratorium, something state law requires if a municipality wants to prohibit the operation of any type of marijuana establishment.
Rather, the “prohibition” resulted from a typo in a new marijuana ordinance passed last spring. The typo has now held up special permits for new cannabis growers and manufacturers, and the failed efforts to fix it have highlighted divisions between factions on the City Council — as well between a new industry arriving in Holyoke and some current business owners who worry about the odors that might waft into the city with it.
“I feel like a cat chasing a laser pointer sometimes with this thing,” said Steven Fontana, the president of the company ACMJ Inc., whose special permit to open a cannabis cultivation operation in the Baustein Building at 532 Main St. has been delayed because of the typo.
The problems began last spring, when the City Council voted on an ordinance that was intended to shrink, from 500 feet to 200 feet, the required buffer between marijuana cultivators and manufacturers and places where children congregate, such as schools. However, for some reason the ordinance was instead printed to say that a 200-foot buffer was required from “any other use as listed in Table 4.3 Table of Principle uses” — a table that includes every conceivable land use possible in the city.
Since Massachusetts voters legalized marijuana in 2016, Holyoke’s elected officials and economic team have bet on the cannabis industry to help revive the city’s vacant mill buildings and downtown. The state’s Cannabis Control Commission has approved more applications from marijuana businesses seeking to operate in Holyoke than any other city.
According to data from the Cannabis Control Commission, 30 companies have received a total of 51 licenses from the state agency — the most licenses in the state. Worcester has received the second-highest amount of licenses at 30 and Boston businesses have received 28.
Odor, air quality concerns
Despite what a majority of councilors recognized as a scrivener’s error in the new ordinance, late last year, in the final days of that City Council’s term, efforts to fix the typo were thwarted by a group of five city councilors who cited air-quality and odor concerns about marijuana manufacturers and cultivators in town.
That olfactory unease was voiced in large part by John Aubin, the owner of the Open Square mill buildings on Lyman Street. He and several of his tenants spoke at City Council meetings last year about their worries: that a wedding party, for example, might pass up their wedding venue if it smelled of marijuana, or that there could be pollution from the grow and manufacturing operations.
In an interview, Aubin described the ordinance typo as a kind of happy mistake that allowed him and others to highlight their concerns over “nuisance odors and air quality.” He pointed to a 2019 study by the Desert Research Institute that raised concerns about the chemicals that create the pungent cannabis smell contributing to air pollution on a larger scale.
“The issues that were raised in large part because of this error … I think we should all be grateful for that,” he said. “Should we ignore these critical issues because of how it was brought up? Should we shoot the messenger? I don’t think so.”
Rebecca Lisi, the former at-large city councilor who chaired the council’s Ordinance Committee during the debacle, sees it differently.
Lisi led the efforts to update Holyoke’s marijuana ordinances last spring. The changes included allowing cultivation and manufacturing facilities to operate 24 hours and reducing the distance those facilities must be located away from schools and other places where children gather.
But amid multiple hybrid meetings with in-person and virtual attendance, as well as significant turnover in the city’s law department, Lisi said the clear typo was inserted into the legal language of the ordinance. And that, she said, was when Aubin and a group of city councilors “hijacked” the council’s attempt to make a technical correction and turned it into a much bigger issue.
“It seems like an opportunity for the anti-marijuana contingency to begin to reduce the presence of marijuana in the city,” Lisi said. “What’s more … I had offered to file a separate order to explore the odor issue separately and they were not interested in doing something to that effect.”
The issue has now held up the special permits of several frustrated marijuana businesses looking to operate in Holyoke’s downtown. City lawyers have gone so far as to say that Holyoke could be liable to lawsuits from two of those companies if, on Tuesday, the full City Council denies them special permits based on the typo.
“In my opinion there was a little bit of political opportunism at play,” said Blake Mensing, an owner of one of those two companies, H&H Holdings Inc., which is seeking to open cultivation and product manufacturing business on the property it bought at 40-48 Main St.
No formal complaints filed
Currently, two national marijuana companies are operating large-scale grow and manufacturing operations in Holyoke: Trulieve, which bought the former Conklin Office Furniture mill building at 56 Canal St. and 7 North Bridge St., where it can grow up to 80,000 square feet of plants; and Rise Holdings, which operates at 28 Appleton St. but is expanding to the former Hampden Papers plant at 100 Water St., which it purchased to grow up to 100,000 square feet of plants as allowed under its state license.
A Gazette reporter walking around Rise Holdings’ operation on Thursday smelled no odor of marijuana in the area, which is located in an industrial neighborhood. Rise Holdings’ parent company is Green Thumb Industries Inc., also known as GTI.
The distinct smell of marijuana, thought faint, wafted across the canal from Trulieve’s operation on Thursday afternoon. Located kitty-corner from the mill building is the Italian restaurant Amedeo’s, whose owner, Tony DiBenedetto, said that whatever odors may exist have no impact on his business whatsoever.
“Honestly, I don’t even notice,” he said.
DiBenedetto isn’t alone in failing to detect a problem. Vega said that as of Thursday, there have been “zero formal complaints filed with the Board of Health or the Building Department regarding any odor due to cannabis cultivation in the city of Holyoke.”
But some other business owners have expressed worries that the smell of marijuana could hurt their interests if the industry continues its expansion into Holyoke.
“When you smell skunk, it kind of ruins your wedding,” said Samantha Methot, an owner of the event venue The Wherehouse? located in the revamped former mill building at 109 Lyman St.
Methot and fellow owner Scott Curran said their business has been “paying taxes and sticking it out” since 1977. To have a new industry come into the city and potentially hurt their business because of odors some customers may find offensive would be unfair, they said.
“People will avoid our area because of the odor,” Curran said. In particular, the two said that they’re worried about a marijuana cultivator or manufacturer moving into a Lyman Steet mill building that sits next door to them.
Across Lyman Street is Open Square — Aubin’s property. One of his new tenants is Comfort Bagel, a business that grew from a home-based operation delivering baked goods during the pandemic to a cozy store that has been inside Open Square since the summer.
Janet Blake, the owner of Comfort Bagel, said the pungent smell of marijuana could keep customers away from her business. It’s an issue that has her considering whether to stay in her current space long term.
“It’s going to adversely affect my business,” she said. “And any of the other little restaurants popping up around here.”
Ordinance in limbo
As the controversy plays out, the future of marijuana cultivation and manufacturing in Holyoke is in limbo. Vega said the city has had to caution marijuana businesses to “proceed at your own risk” when signing host community agreements with them — one of the first steps in a long process required to open a cannabis business in Massachusetts.
A new City Council has now been sworn in, but it is unclear when it will take up the issue of the typo or how it will address the problem.
The five councilors who voted against fixing the typo during the previous City Council’s final meeting on Dec. 21 were Ward 3’s David Bartley, Ward 2’s Terence Murphy, Ward 5’s Linda Vacon, and at-large councilors Michael Sullivan and Howard Greaney. Of those five, only Vacon and Bartley remain on the council this term.
Vacon is now the chairwoman of the Ordinance Committee, which spent much of its meeting Wednesday discussing odor problems, whether the city could establish a temporary moratorium on new cannabis manufacturers or cultivators — it can’t without a ballot question — the problems arising out of the current ordinance language, and the approval of special permits for ACMJ, H&H and another company, Cannalive, which also wants to open a manufacturing operation in the Baustein Building.
In a phone interview, Vacon — who filed the order to explore the possibility of a temporary moratorium — said that her intention from the start was to ensure that current businesses that have invested a lot into the city over the years aren’t the victims of unintended negative consequences from the marijuana industry.
During Wednesday’s meeting, the Ordinance Committee recommended approving special permits for the three companies by a 3-2 vote, with Vacon and At-Large Councilor Kevin Jourdain voting “no.” The full City Council will now take up the approval of those special permits at its Tuesday meeting.
As for the problem with the ordinance language, Vacon said it was not simply a “typo” but rather “errors of content” in several portions of the ordinance that resulted from a messy process that she intends to tighten up as chairwoman of the committee. She said she has already filed an order to address the “problem with the language,” which she acknowledged needs fixing, adding that the process of clarifying the language will be done in a clear and transparent way “so we avoid all of these problems.”
“I do believe that we will come to an agreement that will amend the buffer zones that will allow continued new marijuana business and will also give confidence to our existing businesses that their continued development will be able to be successful,” Vacon said.
Jose Maldonado Velez, the Ordinance Committee vice chair and a newly elected councilor, said the committee recognizes the buffer error as a “debacle.” He said in an interview that while he and Vacon are on opposite ends of the political spectrum, “we can have conversations and have a collaborative approach to the issues we have, and I think we got that feeling yesterday.”
Lisi, however, is “more pessimistic” that the issue will be fully addressed — not because the City Council doesn’t have the votes to change the ordinance, but because Vacon, as chairwoman of the Ordinance Committee, holds significant power over setting the committee’s agenda.
As for the issue of odors, the committee also recommended that city departments explore the extent of their presence, whether they harm air quality and how to ensure that marijuana businesses aren’t emitting excessive odors.
Currently, the city’s ordinances do state that marijuana businesses should not have odors that “can be detected by a person with an unimpaired and otherwise normal sense of smell at any adjoining use or adjoining property to the marijuana establishment.”
Sean Gonsalves, the city’s health director, noted Wednesday that state laws and regulations also allow the Board of Health to regulate odor complaints and air pollution. The question, he said, is how the city wants to standardize enforcement of those rules.
Vega said that the city’s Office of Planning & Economic Development is hoping to use money from community impact fees marijuana businesses pay to the city to bring in a consultant to help the city look at best practices for mitigating odor concerns.
As for whether the ordinance typo will continue to hold up businesses like H&H Holdings, Mensing, the company’s owner, said ahead of Wednesday’s Ordinance Committee meeting that he was unsure what will come next from the City Council.
“My hope is that they do the right thing, but I don’t know what motivates politicians, to be honest,” Mensing said.
Dusty Christensen can be reached at email@example.com.