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Williamstown Ag Commission: Outdoor Pot Cultivation Could Help Farm Viability
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
10:23AM / Wednesday, July 22, 2020
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Agricultural Commission on Monday discussed its strategy for convincing town meeting to approve a bylaw amendment that allows for the outdoor growth of marijuana under a strict regulatory regime.
 
The commission drafted a bylaw proposal that has been submitted by citizen's petition to be considered at the annual town meeting -- rescheduled to Aug. 18 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
 
On Wednesday, the pro-outdoor cultivation proposal will be the subject of a public hearing conducted by the Planning Board, which has its own bylaw proposal on the town meeting warrant.
 
The Planning Board's proposal would allow only indoor pot cultivation; it would prohibit outdoor growth in all of the town's zoning districts.
 
The citizen's petition mirrors the Planning Board's language around controlling odors from indoor growing facilities, but it also keeps the door open for outdoor growth by special permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals.
 
If passed, those permits could be granted for pot fields of up to 50,000 square feet -- half the area allowed by the commonwealth, the bylaw's explanatory text notes. Marijuana plants grown under the bylaw would have to be kept at least 75 feet from any property lines and at least 500 feet from any residential structures not owned by the applicant that exist at the time of the special permit application.
 
And the special permits only would be available in the town's rural residential districts.
 
Members of the Ag Commission on Monday repeatedly stressed that small-scale outdoor production of marijuana would produce a needed revenue stream for struggling family farmers in a town with a rich farming heritage but a challenging contemporary reality.
 
Chair Sarah Gardner noted that the town already has one operating recreational marijuana dispensary with another permitted but not yet operational. And the town voted strongly in favor of the 2016 ballot initiative that decriminalized pot in the commonwealth.
 
"The town voted for this, other boards are granting permits, it's only fair the farmers in this town have the capability to have some of that economic opportunity," Gardner said. "It is truly just an economic opportunity here. That is what we're talking about. It enhances farm viability.
 
"I'm not for or against marijuana. I'm pro farming and farm land."
 
Bill Stinson of Peace Valley Farm agreed.
 
"I'd like to make it clear exactly what our objective is … we'd like to keep our foot in the door and not close it off to all outdoor growing," Stinson said. "About every 50 years something comes along that can help agriculture in a positive way, and I think that's what we're talking about … keeping the door open so future farmers can add to their crop."
 
The commission Monday received input from Alexander Carlisle, a former member of the town's Planning Board, and Jacob Ziminski, who grows cannabis commercially in Cheshire.
 
Carlisle called the Planning Board's proposal "not well thought out" but cautioned that while the Ag Commission's arguments are philosophically sound, opponents of outdoor growing are relying on personal arguments and fear.
 
"In my experience, once people are confronted with a personal choice versus a philosophical choice, personal impact always overrules," Carlisle said. "So, the most important thing we need to do is undo all of those perceptions, or the philosophical part is just not going to gain enough ground."
 
Many of the same residents who objected to the Massflora special permit application in Zoning Board of Appeals hearings successfully lobbied the Planning Board to make outdoor growth impermissible under its bylaw proposal for this year's annual town meeting.
 
Several of the participants in Monday's meeting noted that opposition to allowing outdoor pot production coalesced when a would-be commercial grower came to town proposing to build an indoor/outdoor production facility on Blair Road, in one of the Rural Residence zoning districts.
 
Proponents of the citizen's petition bylaw say it addresses many of the concerns raised by opponents of the since withdrawn proposal by Massflora, a subsidiary of Colorado-based Euflora Cannabis Dispensaries.
 
The bylaw pro-outdoor growth bylaw on the town meeting warrant, in addition to creating greater setbacks than the Massflora proposal included, also would require applicants to install vegetative screening around the security fence required by state law for outdoor growers and require outdoor growers to "utilize Best Available Technology [sic] … to mitigate cannabis plant odors."
 
Town Planner Andrew Groff on Tuesday said the two bylaw proposals -- while seemingly at odds with one another -- actually would work in concert.
 
If the Planning Board's bylaw proposal -- which will appear first on the warrant -- passes, then the Ag Commission's draft bylaw is designed to "plug right into the new framework," Groff said.
 
"If the town passes the outdoor petition without passing the [Planning Board's] article, that could get a little complicated," he wrote in an email seeking clarification about the seeming conflict.
 
The Agricultural Commission also is promoting a different, unrelated bylaw proposal for August's annual town meeting.
 
Following on the bylaw adopted in 2012 to allow on-farm events (weddings, parties, etc.), the commission is proposing that the number of permissible events per year be expanded to 10.
 
"I think [the events bylaw] is pretty straightforward," Gardner said. "We need to check our records or ask [Groff], but since we passed it several years ago, a couple of farms in town … have been holding events, maybe six per year. I haven't heard of any problems with the events that have been held."
 
Commissioner Averill Cook said he could think of one potential objection.
 
"The only thing I've heard is there's no [requirement for] notificaton to the abutters," Cook said. "Sometimes the neighbors will embrace the idea, but it would be a courtesy by the event planner to notify them if there's going to be a wedding or something."
 
Gardner agreed that such a requirement is something that could be added to the bylaw.
 
The public hearing on both citizen's petitions (farm events and outdoor marijuana growth) and a modified version of a Planning Board draft bylaw on nonconforming residences is scheduled for Wednesday at 7 p.m. The link to the virtual meeting as well as drafts of the proposed bylaw amendments are available on the town website.
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