2016, Massachusetts voters enacted a state ballot initiative
legalizing the sale and use of
recreational marijuana. This law, codified as M.G.L. c. 94G, gave individual cities and towns the ability to ban recreational marijuana establishments from their communities if the majority of voters in the municipality voted “no” on that ballot initiative and then enacted such a local ban by December 30, 2019.
The majority of the voters in the Town of Bourne on Cape Cod in 2016 had voted “no” on this ballot initiative. In May 2017, the Town then voted to impose a temporary moratorium on recreational marijuana establishments. It would last either until November 30, 2018, or until the Town enacted zoning bylaw amendments to regulate such establishments.
In October 2018, two bylaw amendments were presented at Bourne Town Meeting. Warrant Article 14 (Article 14) proposed an amendment to Bourne’s general bylaws to prohibit all commercial recreational marijuana establishments in Town. Warrant Article 15 (Article 15) proposed amendments to the Town’s zoning bylaw that would regulate recreational marijuana establishments.
An amendment to a general bylaw requires a simple majority vote while an amendment to a zoning bylaw requires a two-thirds majority vote. Article 14 did pass by a simple majority vote, but Article 15 did not pass after failing to receive the requisite two-thirds majority vote. The general bylaw became law, while the zoning did not.
The Haven Center, Inc.—a company seeking to operate a retail recreational marijuana establishment in Bourne—filed suit in state court seeking a declaratory judgment that Article 14 was invalid. The Haven Center argued that Article 14 violated the Home Rule Amendment, because Article 14 constituted a zoning bylaw and was inconsistent with the Zoning Act, M.G.L. c. 40A, §§ 5-6.
The Home Rule Amendment allows municipalities to enact local ordinances or bylaws that are not inconsistent with the Massachusetts Constitution or laws. The Haven Center argued that Article 14, as a matter of law, should be regarded as a zoning amendment—and not a general bylaw, as the Town had characterized it—because it prohibited a particular use of land.
The argument continued that since Article 14 was in effect a zoning bylaw, its enactment procedure (no public hearing and passed by a simple majority vote) violated the procedural requirements set out in c. 40A, §§ 5-6.
The language in M.G.L. c. 94G indicates that a municipality may prohibit recreational marijuana establishments through general bylaws or zoning bylaws. Nonetheless, under Massachusetts court precedents, even if the Town intended Article 14 to be a general bylaw, it could be deemed a zoning bylaw, subject to , if certain factors were met.
Such factors are whether other municipalities have adopted similar bylaws as zoning bylaws, whether the municipality whose bylaw is being scrutinized has previously regulated the topic through comprehensive zoning ordinances, whether the bylaw is intended to prohibit or permit any particular listed uses of land, and whether the dominant purpose of the bylaw pertains to interests typically addressed by the zoning process.
The SJC, hearing the case on appeal, ruled that Bourne’s temporary moratorium of recreational marijuana establishments was not a comprehensive zoning scheme and that Article 14 was not a zoning bylaw, simply because it indirectly prohibited the use of land in Town for recreational marijuana establishments. Because the Court ruled that Article 14 was not a zoning bylaw, it was not subject to the procedural requirements of M.G.L. c. 40A.
The Haven Center’s second argument was that Article 14 was inconsistent with the provision under M.G.L. c. 94G, § 3(a)(1) that prohibits municipalities from using zoning bylaws to prevent the conversion of a medical marijuana treatment center into a recreational marijuana establishment.
The SJC held that Article 14 was not subject to § 3(a)(1), because § 3(a)(1) only prohibits zoning bylaws that prevent the conversion of a medical marijuana treatment center into a recreational marijuana establishment. Because the SJC determined Article 14 was not a zoning bylaw, § 3(a)(1) did not apply to Article 14.
The Haven Center’s final argument was that Article 14 was inconsistent with the provision under G.L. c. 94G, § 3(a) that prohibits “unreasonably impractical” bylaws. The SJC ruled that the specific state statutory authorization to adopt a complete ban of recreational marijuana establishments under § 3(a)(2)(i) superseded any general requirement that a bylaw not be unreasonably impractical.
Thus, under the principles of Home Rule, bylaw application, and statutory interpretation in Massachusetts, the Town of Bourne succeeded in prohibiting all commercial recreational marijuana establishments in Town.
An Associate at McGregor Legere & Stevens PC, Caroline Smith is a member of REBA’s Environmental and Renewable Energy Section and New Lawyers Section. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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