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Pot & Pollinators on Williamstown Town Meeting Agenda
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
12:13PM / Sunday, May 14, 2017
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — This year's annual town meeting is all about weed and weeds.
The two articles that may generate the most discussion at the Tuesday evening meeting come near the end of the agenda: Articles 36 and 39 on a 40-article warrant.
The former is the zoning bylaw amendment proposed by the Planning Board that would regulate the location of potential marijuana businesses in light of last November's statewide initiative to legalize recreational pot.
The latter, generated by citizens' petition, is a non-binding resolution that asks town residents to reconsider how the manage their properties in order create an environment that fosters bees, butterflies and other pollinators.
Article 36 would marijuana retail, marijuana production and marijuana testing facilities to the town's land-use tables.
The potential inclusion of retail in particular sparked considerable discussion at the Planning Board's public hearing on this and three other proposed zoning bylaw amendments.
Several residents addressed the board to express concerns about the potential impact on youngsters who are exposed to marijuana sales in public — particularly considering adverse health effects to developing minds.
That discussion will continue on Monday at 7 p.m., on the eve of town meeting, with a panel discussion and question-and-answer session at First Congregational Church.
Planning Board Chairwoman Amy Jeschawitz, who will be on the Monday evening panel, explained last week that the bylaw's passage would not immediately open the door to marijuana retailers, largely because the commonwealth is yet to develop a regulatory framework for such establishments.
The bylaw would give the town local control over where such shops would be located when Boston figures out how to permit them.
"The main reason we decided to move forward with this is that, at this point in time, if someone was looking to come into Williamstown with either a medical dispensary or retail, we have nothing on the books whatsoever as to where it can go," Jeschawitz said. "They can come in and pick a spot where retail is allowed and do it anywhere — without a special permit.
"Retail licenses are not being issued [by the commonwealth] until July 2018, but, still a person could come into the community and say, ‘I'm going to rent this space in X area,' or pull a building permit and they can do it."
Jeschawitz said it is unclear at this point whether or how municipalities can institute a ban. But once the commonwealth makes those kinds of decisions, Williamstown could revisit the idea whether or not it has a land-use rule in place.
The Planning Board began the work of crafting a bylaw amendment in November, around the time Massachusetts voters approved recreational pot by a 53-47 ratio (the vote was 60-40 yes in Williamstown).
"Our choice as a Planning Board was to do nothing, or the only other option to us was to decide it was a land use and put it in the zoning table," she said. "That's why we decided to go that route.
"The other ways [of regulating] that were available through the state, whether a moratorium or an all-out ban for the community — it is very unclear how that gets done or if it can be done.
"Having it within our zoning table, it gives us more control."
A 3-1 majority of the Board of Selectmen agreed with the idea of giving the town a measure of control as the commonwealth enters an uncertain era of legalized marijuana.
"It's new for all of us to say that marijuana is legal, and there are a lot of unknowns with it," Jeschawitz said. "It is legal within the state of Massachusetts. It's just going to take a while to get used to.
"I think it's scary for all of us. I think we have preconceived notions of what marijuana can be and can do. Once it gets clearer within the state, everyone will calm down."
The citizen's petition to make Williamstown a "Pollinator-Friendly Community," similar to measures on town meeting agendas around Western Massachusetts, seeks to address a serious problem that threatens the world's food supply by taking modest steps close to home.
Advocates point to alarming statistics about the decline in pollinator populations and say that local landowners can help by steps like delaying the mowing of fields, reducing or eliminating herbicides and insecticides and "replacing portions of grassed areas with low maintenance flowering perennial shrubs, wildflower corridors and trees."
They also note that plants like dandelions, which are treated like unwanted "weeds" and often treated with chemicals, are actually part of a healthy ecosystem and should be allowed to flourish.
Two other citizen's petition-led warrant articles seek to address global issues.
Article 38 would rename Columbus Day in the town to Indigenous People's Day, a move that would be largely symbolic and impact only the wording on the town and elementary school's calendars.
Article 40 would require that the town give residents 30 days notice if the Williamstown Police Department decides to modify the provisions of Police Chief Kyle Johnson's March 14 general order, which clarified existing department policy on immigration laws.
The general order, which is included in the annual town meeting warrant, reads, in part, "Department members shall not stop, question, interrogate, investigate or arrest an individual based solely on actual or suspected immigration or citizenship status."
Chief Johnson, who was consulted in the development of the town meeting article, has endorsed the resolution.
The financial articles on Tuesday evening's ballot have not generated near the angst they did in 2016.
Of the town's three largest cost centers, two are seeking significant increases for fiscal 2018 while the third and largest is coming in at less than the 2.5 percent threshold.
General government operations (the Department of Public Works, police, administration, etc.) comes in at a 2.1 percent hike from FY17.
The Mount Greylock Regional School assessment is up by 6.89 percent from the current fiscal year — a hike attributable entirely to the school building project overwhelmingly approved by Williamstown voters last year.
The Williamstown Elementary School budget is up by 3.64 percent, continuing a two-year trend of larger increases than town officials have requested. Although the town's Finance Committee has expressed concern about trend and requested a meeting later this month with the WES Committee, both the Fin Comm and Board of Selectmen voted unanimously to recommend passage of the budget.
Voters will see a number of non-unanimous recommendation votes when they get to Articles 23 through 29, the expenditures from the Community Preservation Act. Earlier this year, the Community Preservation Committee went through a lengthy and, at times, confusing series of meetings as it tried to rein in expenditures from the act and build up a reserve.
The town in 2002 adopted the CPA, under which landowners are charged a property tax surcharge of 2 percent (after a $100,000 exemption) to fund projects that support affordable housing, historic preservation and open space and recreation.
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