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Williamstown Planners Aim to Finish Cannabis Bylaw Proposal Next Month
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
06:17AM / Saturday, February 13, 2021
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The calendar read Feb. 9 when the Planning Board met on Tuesday.
But the conversation brought to mind a date seven days earlier as the board and the public relived many of the same arguments that have dominated the body's discussion for months as it hashes out a new zoning bylaw to regulate the production of cannabis.
"I've said this a half dozen times, I'm amazed I have to say it again," Andrew Skinner said as he pushed the board to draft a bylaw that allows less canopy square footage for outdoor production.
Planning Board members could be forgiven for feeling kinship to Bill Murray's character in the movie "Groundhog Day" as they heard many of the same arguments from some familiar faces.
Skinner was joined by Melissa Cragg, Stan Parese and Anne Hogeland in urging the Planning Board to reduce the square footage allowable for outdoor cultivation in the town's Rural Residence 2 and RR zoning districts.
Agriculture Commission member Brian Cole was joined by Cheshire hemp farmer Jacob Zieminski in speaking from the floor of the virtual meeting to support the current bylaw draft, which sets no local limit on the size of a pot producer's canopy, effectively allowing grows up to the current state cap of 100,000 square feet (2.3 acres).
Planning Board Chair Stephanie Boyd attempted to head off any potential redundancy when she opened the floor to public comments a little more than an hour into the meeting.
"I would suggest that anybody who wants to say something, please raise your hand so we can kind of start trying to figure out how much time it might take," Boyd said to attendees at the virtual meeting. "Hands are starting to be raised. … I would just like to remind people, please bring us new information, if you have a question, ask us that, try to be brief, if somebody else has already expressed thoughts similar to yours, say, 'I agree with what Joe just said.'
"Let's try not to have too much repetition of things that we've heard before and that I know you think we haven't listened to, but we have."
After eight speakers and an hour and a quarter of public comment, Boyd asked her colleagues whether there was anything in the draft bylaw that they wanted to change.
"It's late right now," Susan Puddester said. "I don't know if I'm up to rewriting anything right now. Is it possible to spend the next meeting talking about possible revisions and not take any public comment?"
Boyd agreed that it was late to start considering revisions, and Town Planner Andrew Groff reminded the board that while its meetings need to be public, it need not take public comment at every meeting.
The panel generally agreed to meet on its regular schedule on March 9 and potentially add another meeting during the month to finalize the article it hopes in April to present to the Select Board for inclusion on the town meeting warrant. The state-mandated public hearing on all Planning Board articles would be in mid April, slightly later than usual given the town's plan to hold the annual town meeting outside in June.
The board Tuesday talked about some revisions to the draft cannabis production bylaw that were made between meetings by Boyd and Groff after consultation with the town counsel.
Some of the changes were technical fixes to a companion bylaw that brings the town's zoning language into alignment with the language created by the state's Cannabis Control Commission. Last year, the Planning Board incorporated the language changes and the actual regulations into a single bylaw, which ultimately was defeated at town meeting; this time around, it wants to make sure that at least the language issues are cleaned up, even if the regulations fail to achieve the needed two-thirds majority.
As for the likely more contentious article, currently labeled Article B, the latest draft reviewed by the planners had a couple of modifications intended to help tighten regulations and one change that would considerably loosen town controls on outdoor grows.
The latter is a footnote in the proposed use table. While outdoor cultivation would mostly continue to require special permits from the Zoning Board of Appeals in the two districts, RR2 and RR3, where it is allowed, a footnote added in the latest draft would allow operations with canopies of 5,000 square feet and less permissible by right in those districts.
"My understanding of the conversation [at past meetings] is we were hoping to incentivize small outdoor farm grows, in which case footnote 6 covers it," Peter Beck said.
Other changes likely will be more palatable to those concerned about potential impacts of cultivation.
In a paragraph related to the special permit process, the newest iteration of the bylaw allows the ZBA to hire (at an applicant's expense) "independent consultant(s) with experience in evaluating
marijuana establishments or similar facilities on behalf of municipalities."
"The thought being, this is such a new industry, what we're concerned about with this, particularly with smell, if there are industry experts and engineers who have experience evaluating other types of noxious, odor producing industries like, I don't know, a sewer plant or something, this could be particularly useful for us," Groff said. "We didn't want to potentially reduce our availability of possible experts for the Zoning Board."
Another new feature of the revised bylaw, section K, paragraph 4, applies to cultivation operations once they are permitted and operational.
"No use shall be allowed at a Marijuana Establishment which creates a nuisance to abutters or to the surrounding area, or which creates any hazard, including but not limited to, fire, explosion, fumes, gas, smoke, odors, obnoxious dust, vapors, offensive sound or vibration, flashes, glare, objectionable effluent or electrical interference, which may impair the normal use and peaceful enjoyment of any property, structure or dwelling in the area," the paragraph reads in the current draft.
"Clearly, there is some interpretation, but at least there is some protection in the bylaw and some means for an abutter to make a complaint to the town," Boyd said.
Groff indicated the addition was a suggestion from the town counsel.
"[Town counsel's] thought was it gives the zoning enforcement officer a lot more power to monitor and control any possible issues that might arise," Groff said. "That hopefully addresses a lot of concerns about how do we hold these types of uses accountable long term once they're in town."
"It's not perfect, but it's stronger than what we had before," Boyd said.
While the Planning Board on Tuesday did not address whether it wanted to propose a bylaw that caps the size of an outdoor cannabis grow below the maximum allowed by the commonwealth, at least one member indicated directly that he does not see the point in that.
"The way [the draft bylaw] is written now grants flexibility within what the state allows, but it also constrains the things we want to constrain," Chris Winters said. "In some ways, the [CCC's] tiers are irrelevant if you can mitigate the negative consequences. There's a lot of energy being directed at what's small and what's large when we should direct energy into mitigating negative consequences.
"Again, I think the way to do that is through setbacks that are appropriate for the purpose."
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