Decision on Cannabis Retailer’s Fight Over ‘Impact’ Fees a Year Away; Judge Decries ‘Bickering’

Stem, 124 Washington St., Haverhill. (WHAV News file photograph.)

A court decision over the legality of cannabis “impact fees” Haverhill charges a local retailer is about a year away.

As expected, the final pre-trial conference Tuesday, presided over by Judge Jeffrey T. Karp in Essex County Superior Court, Newburyport, did nothing to resolve the issue itself, but did set a date for the court case to begin. In fact, the court heard no peripheral issues such as settlement talks between Haverhill Stem and Mayor James J. Fiorentini and the City of Haverhill.

Stem attorney Thomas K. MacMillan told the judge he expects the trial will take between 15 to 25 days, a length of time the judge said would not be available until next year noting that, due to COVID-19, the court is only now hearing cases from 2016. Ultimately, all parties agreed to a start date of Monday, Feb. 12, 2024

According to court documents, Stem plans to call 42 witnesses, including Fiorentini, state Rep. Andy X. Vargas, school Superintendent Margaret Marotta, Police Chief Robert P. Pistone, former Police Chief Alan R. DeNaro, sitting City Councilors John A. Michitson and Michael S. McGonagle, former City Councilor Colin F. LePage and retired Fire Chief William F. Laliberty, among others.

Outside city lawyer Michelle E. Randazzo voiced dissatisfaction with her opponent’s lengthy list, asking that it be trimmed to a reasonable length. MacMillan responded calling her statement “pretty offensive.” At that point, Karp admonished both parties to find a way to get along, saying, “In a 25-day trial, I am not spending my time dealing with bickering.”

As both sides are planning to present expert witnesses at the trial, Karp determined a Voir Dire hearing, a procedure to evaluate the qualifications of expert witnesses is necessary. He set a date of July 19, 2023 for that hearing.

Both sides exchanged what were called compromise offers, according to documents provided by Stem last week. Stem initiated the round in December, asking for full refund of the impact fees paid totaling almost $700,000, a new agreement no impact fees shall be assessed unless in line with amended state law, among other points. The city countered by offering to refund one-third of the second payment only along with Stem’s agreement to provide financial support to Haverhill’s program studying the impact of legalized cannabis on the city’s youth. To date, no agreement has been reached.

Stem owner Caroline Pineau has charged the city’s evaluation of those fees is overinflated and no fees should be levied until the city provides evidence of incurring increased costs due to hosting a cannabis business.

Randazzo responded the city provided documentation, but “Stem simply disagrees with the documentation produced thus far.  In addition to the consulting report, the city has provided a variety of documentation to Stem in discovery in this case. Judge Lang recognized this fact in his decision denying Stem’s Motion for Summary Judgment,” she argued.

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