|Williamstown Planning Board, Ag Commission Work on Cannabis Production Bylaw|
|By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff|
11:12AM / Wednesday, October 21, 2020
The Planning Board meets virtually to discuss development of a new bylaw proposal on cannabis cultivation.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Two town committees are working on parallel paths to bring next year's annual town meeting a cannabis cultivation bylaw on which voters can agree.
Specifically, the Planning Board and Agricultural Commission hope to find language that two-thirds of the meeting participants can support in order to replace an outdated bylaw put on the books in May 2017 mostly as a "placeholder" to respond to the November 2016 passage of a public question that decriminalized marijuana in the commonwealth.
Since that time, the state's Cannabis Control Commission has defined ground rules for production in Massachusetts, and the town has seen one submission for a special permit under the 2017 bylaw to establish an indoor/outdoor grow facility on Blair Road.
It also saw a confusing process leading to the 2020 annual town meeting that started with the Planning Board developing a bylaw that allowed indoor and outdoor production under more restrictions than found in the 2017 bylaw. After hearing a lot from opponents to outdoor growing, including many of the same neighbors who fought the 2019 Massflora proposal, and no advocacy raised on the other side of the issue, the Planning Board altered its proposed draft bylaw to allow only indoor production.
Ultimately, the town meeting warrant included that indoor-only bylaw and a second bylaw drafted by the Ag Commission that allowed outdoor growth by special permit. After a protracted debate at town meeting, both the Planning Board proposal and the Ag Commission proposal garnered a simple majority of votes but not the two-thirds majority needed to enact a zoning bylaw change.
This time around, officials hope to put a more coherent choice before the voters.
Last week, the Planning Board discussed how it will organize information and break down the various decision points that will go into a new draft bylaw. Chair Stephanie Boyd explained a decision-making matrix that she created and posted on the town's website in a new page
created as a repository for all the data the board has and will collect on the issue.
She also noted that one of the fundamental concerns for opponents of outdoor pot cultivation has no hard data.
"One of the important questions we've heard is, ‘Will living near a cultivation area affect the property value of my home,' " Boyd said, referring to the concerns raised about an offensive odor coming off flowering cannabis plants. "I haven't figured out how to answer that yet.
"[Town Planner Andrew Groff] and I have done a little poking around in house sales in Sheffield, where there are some marijuana facilities. It's really hard to find someone who is researching house values in a scenario like what we have in Williamstown. It wouldn't be fair to compare it to someplace where they have one of those huge cultivation farms [in the western U.S.]."
In the spring and summer, in the run-up to town meeting, the Planning Board heard testimony claiming that marijuana plants don't give off much odor at all and that, if the plants do smell, it is analogous to the odor of fertilizer spread on fields during regular agricultural production.
Groff recognized that there is no definite way to resolve the smell debate.
"There is no scientific way to measure it," he said. "It's completely subjective. To one person, it might be offensive, and the next person can't perceive it."
The planners decided to continue their conversation in November with a pair of panel discussions bringing in outside experts, like grower Ted Dobson of Sheffield and a representative of the CCC to be named. On Tuesday, the Planning Board set dates of Nov. 4 and 18 for the discussions with invited guests.
The Ag Commission already is a step ahead.
Last Wednesday, that body met with the chair of the Sheffield Board of Selectmen.
Rene Wood told the Ag Commission that voters in her South County town have been welcoming to indoor and outdoor cannabis production since the 2016 statewide referendum on recreational pot.
Wood said that Sheffield has two cannabis production operations up and running and four more in the CCC permitting process.
Ag Commissioner Averill Cook asked Wood whether her town had heard any objections to the growing operations that are up and running.
"None so far," Wood said. "I'm the chair of the Select Board, and people know my phone number. I'm not aware of any opposition. We'll sometimes joke a little that it smells like ‘skunk light,' which, again, I don't mind.
"But I've heard nothing about any of the outdoor grows, and neither have any of the other selectmen I'm aware of, and neither has the town administrator."
Wood said one of Sheffield's operations recently expanded to a 100,000-foot canopy, making it a Tier 11 growing facility, the largest allowed by the CCC. That is double the size of the maximum growing area that would have been allowed under the bylaw drafted by the Ag Commission for August's annual town meeting and 20 times the Tier 1 "microbusiness" alternative proposed as a compromise from the floor of the town meeting.
Wood advised the Williamstown Ag Commission against the strategy of proposing smaller grow areas in order to grow consensus for an affirmative vote.
"My concern would be you're not going to have a lot of luck compromising or doing anything until you educate your public and give them a reason to say yes," Wood said. "The fear drivers will win at the end of the day unless there is education to counter them."
The ag commissioners agreed to meet again this Wednesday and the next week with hopes of welcoming more guest speakers: Sheffield farmer Dobson and the proprietor of Pittsfield pot dispensary Bloom Brothers.
A Cluett Drive resident last Tuesday cautioned the Planning Board against stacking its roll of outside experts with proponents of outdoor cannabis production.
"In a sense, I think we're over-complicating things trying to bring in a lot of outside experts," Andrew Skinner told the planners. "I'm a little bit offended by it, because it sounds like you want to bring the whole marijuana choir in to sing for you. You've got an entire neighborhood, last [spring] coming in to speak against it, and now you're searching out all the pot advocates you can find."
Boyd disputed that assertion.
"Andrew, I have to interrupt there," she said. "I do not think that is our mission. We would love to bring in anybody that our community thinks would be important to talk to us about this issue. So if you have somebody you think can argue what you believe is the appropriate viewpoint, send me their name, and we will invite them."
The members of the board agreed that their job is to develop a zoning bylaw proposal that makes sense for the town based on the information they collect over the next few months.
"Allowable cultivation of marijuana outdoors could range from zero square feet everywhere to 100,000 square feet in every district," Peter Beck said. "We're trying to pick the most reasonable number in between them and decide at town meeting.
"When we bring in these other aspects of growing outdoors — other than what is strictly a land-use decision like how big, where, what's the shape — it's because the bigger we go, the more we'll hear concerns about property character and value. And the lower we go, the more we hear concerns that it's not a viable business, so why are you wasting our time on something so small?"
Chris Winters agreed and emphasized that it is the members of the town meeting, not the members of the Planning Board, who make the final call.
"We're not going to please everyone," Winters said. "There are going to be unhappy people on both sides of this. That's kind of evidence that we've found a good compromise. Hopefully, we do find such a compromise."