Lebanon — City councilors voted unanimously on Wednesday to adopt changes to the city’s zoning ordinance designating areas that would be best suited for a medical marijuana dispensary to set up shop.
A state law that went into effect in 2013 allows for up to four dispensaries and related cultivation sites to open in New Hampshire. Lebanon officials have anticipated the city could be an attractive location for developers due to its role as a commercial and health care hub, as well as its proximity to the junction of two interstates.
“I think this was strategic and smart,” Assistant Mayor Suzanne Prentiss said of the changes.
The measure adopted Wednesday night brought the city’s zoning into alignment with state law by barring a medical marijuana dispensary or cultivation area within 1,000 feet of a pre-existing elementary or secondary school or designated drug-free zone. The changes also prevent a dispensary within 1,000 feet of public playgrounds, child care centers, places of worship or public recreation facilities such as parks or pools. It also bans a facility from opening within 500 feet of a residential district or within a building that contains a residence.
A dispensary would be allowed in portions of the general commercial district, which includes the Route 12A plazas, sections of Route 4 and the Route 120 corridor, the Miracle Mile and other small pockets. Under the old zoning ordinance, a facility could have opened anywhere in the city where general office uses are allowed.
Despite the new ordinance, the city will not have ultimate authority over where a dispensary could be located. The state Department of Health and Human Services gets the final say over where a facility can open, but must take the local ordinance into account.
“There is always a possibility that something can be tinkered with, but we have said where we think is best,” Prentiss said.
Councilor Karen Liot Hill echoed that sentiment.
“I think it is helpful to have the zoning ordinance reflect what our preferences are,” Hill said.
The City Council opened Wednesday night’s meeting with a public hearing to solicit feedback from community members on the zoning changes, but no residents weighed in on the matter.
An undisclosed company has expressed interest in opening a dispensary in Lebanon, though the company’s name and the precise location hasn’t been disclosed. Planning and Zoning Director David Brooks on Wednesday said to his knowledge, no one else has expressed interest. If granted a license, the company must go through the local permitting process.
No dispensary facilities currently exist in New Hampshire, which has established four regions: Cheshire and Sullivan counties along with southern Grafton County, including Hanover or Lebanon.; Carroll and Coos counties and northern Grafton County; Belknap, Rockingham and Strafford counties; and Hillsborough and Merrimack counties.
After Wednesday’s meeting, Brooks pin-pointed the primary areas where a dispensary could set up under the city’s new ordinance. He said locations south of the K-Mart Plaza on Route 12A would be fair game, as well as a portion of Route 4 around Exit 19 on Interstate 89. Also in play is a small area on Route 120 near the Hanover-Lebanon townline, near Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.
“We thought ahead to restrict it to where we don’t think it will create a problem,” Brooks said. “With the unknowns, we didn’t want a dispensary in a place where it would turn out to be a problem.”
According to a legal opinion on the zoning changes written by H. Bernard Waugh Jr. of Gardner Fulton & Waugh in Lebanon, the city made the right move by outlining where a dispensary would be best suited.
In his opinion, which was included in city councilors’ packet of documents at Wednesday’s meeting, Waugh said it is unlikely that the state would subvert a local zoning ordinance, as long as a “reasonable” selection of sites are allowed.
He said he feels the city has provided a sufficient number of options.
“The bottom line is that there is the potential that the ordinance amendment could be overridden by the state,” Waugh wrote, “but that is not likely .”
Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at [email protected] or 603-727-3248.