|Williamstown Town Meeting: Yes, You Cannabis|
|By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff|
09:51PM / Wednesday, June 09, 2021
|Voters at Williamstown's town meeting Wednesday vote on a bylaw amendment to regulate cannabis production.|
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — After passing two amendments to address concerns raised by critics, town meeting Wednesday overwhelmingly passed a bylaw amendment that establishes new rules for cannabis cultivation in the town.
By a vote of 228-49, the meeting passed the bylaw proposed by the town's Planning Board after overwhelmingly approving two amendments that the Planning Board chose not to oppose.
The amendment needed a two-thirds supermajority vote for passage. In this case, the threshold would have been 186 votes, well below the 228 that it received.
Although the final tally was a landslide, the issue, as expected, drew most of the discussion at the meeting, which clocked in at just more than three hours.
About one hour, 12 minutes of that time was devoted to Article 29, which sought to amend the bylaw to add regulations specific to the production of marijuana.
The issue has loomed large in Planning Board discussions since long before the 2020 annual town meeting, and the debate continued right through Wednesday night, when the town held its second straight outdoor meeting at Williams College's Weston Field.
Most of the discussion centered on rules concerning commercial outdoor pot grows and their potential impact on residents and the Mount Greylock Regional School, which is located in one of the districts the Planning Board proposed to allow commercial grows.
As he previously announced, Stan Parese, an outspoken critic of the Planning Board's proposal, moved to amend the bylaw to disallow outdoor grows in Rural Residence 2 and Rural Residence 3, effectively making outdoor production impossible in the entire town.
But on advice of town counsel, Moderator Adam Filson ruled Parese's amendment out of order because it was outside the scope of the bylaw amendment as it appeared on the town meeting warrant.
Parese proposed a subsequent amendment to remove a footnote in the Planning Board's draft that would have allowed commercial cannabis grows by right -- i.e., without special permit approval from the Zoning Board of Appeals -- for canopies up to 5,000 square feet in size, the lowest tier in the 10-tier regime established by the commonwealth's Cannabis Control Commission.
Town Counsel Joel Bard and Filson concurred that Parese's second motion to amend was in order, and the town voted to so amend.
Anne Hogeland proposed an amendment to add language to the cannabis cultivation bylaw specifically referencing another part of town code. Hogeland proposed an amendment to clarify that pot grows still would be subject to the pre-existing development standards.
"I'd like to declare the Planning Board is OK with this amendment," Chris Winters said, referencing a discussion the board held in a meeting earlier Tuesday evening. "It's consistent with the way we interpret the underlying bylaw amendment."
Filson and Bard also agreed that Hogeland's amendment was in order, and the meeting passed it on a majority vote before moving back to the main question.
Planning Board members had argued that the intent of Article 29 was to add to protections that existed in the zoning bylaw, including the development standards that Parese recently cited
as an obstacle to potential grower who applied for a special permit in 2019.
Hogeland, however, told the meeting that without concrete language in the cannabis bylaw, it would be a question subject to litigation down the road whether the existing bylaw on odor control still applied to marijuana growers.
"If we don't clarify it, we are at risk of a simple, well-founded argument that a later-passed and more narrowly focused provision — in the case of potential conflict or ambiguity — is the one that controls," Hogeland said. "While there is the [Planning Board's] intent for Article 29 to be additive, that may not be what we see down the road when aggressive attorneys make aggressive legal arguments."
Elisabeth Goodman, like Hogeland an attorney, asked the town counsel to give his opinion about whether the pre-existing development standards would apply without the language Hogeland proposed.
"Without having the zoning bylaw in front of me, I'm wary of opining," Bard said. "It's possible it's not necessary. The point made by [Hogeland] of the amendment was to remove all doubt … in the event there is any doubt. I cannot opine as to whether there is any doubt. I'm sorry."
Andrew Skinner, another frequent critic of the Planning Board's proposal, made his second trip to the microphone to highlight Bard's answer.
"If the town counsel can't answer this tonight, surely in court, we'll have lawyers arguing," Skinner said. "The Planning Board previously indicated its support for the concept [of Hogeland's amendment] because they said their bylaw is additive. Let's make it additive."
As for Parese's initial amendment, Bard advised the meeting that changing the bylaw amendment on the floor to rule out all outdoor cannabis production would be beyond the scope of the language on the warrant.
"The purpose of a warrant is to advise or warn the voters of what's coming before you," Bard said. "The concept of 'scope of the warrant' is whether an amendment is within what you were notified would come before you.
"Say there's a warrant article looking to appropriate $100,000 for a given purpose. Someone gets up and amends to make that $500,000. I've never seen a moderator who would allow such a motion. The ruling would be it was outside the scope. If it was an amendment to increase it to $125,000, that would be within the moderator's discretion."
Bard and Filson decided that an amendment to change cannabis cultivation from "allowable by special permit" to "disallowed" in all parts of town was outside the scope of what appeared on the meeting's warrant.
The other two amendments, which ultimately passed were, by contrast, more modest changes, the town counsel and moderator agreed.
After the removal of the by-right provision for "micro" grows and the addition of language referencing existing language that "No nonagricultural use shall cause the emission of odors detectable more than 200 feet beyond the boundary of the premises for receptors within a Limited Industrial District or more than 100 feet beyond the boundary of the premises for receptors elsewhere," the Planning Board's proposal picked up an unqualified endorsement from a member of the Zoning Board of Appeals.
"This bylaw proposal by the Planning Board would put much more power in control of the ZBA to manage and control outdoor cultivation," Keith Davis said. "I see nothing wrong with [Hogeland's] amendment. [Parese's] amendment was consistent with a message I sent to the Planning Board.
"I'd hope everyone would vote in favor of this proposed bylaw. If we don't, the old bylaw stays in effect, and that allows people to do plantings a lot closer than this one does."
The "old bylaw" was a very preliminary bylaw passed by town meeting in 2017 that only specified where marijunana could be produced without any provisions specific to the industry.
Stephanie Boyd, who chaired the Planning Board through two years of deliberations on a revised cannabis bylaw, told the meeting Wednesday that the proposal on the warrant struck a balance between the need to give local farmers economic opportunity and the need to protect neighbors from negative impacts of cannabis production.
"Vote yes if you would like to see some safeguards," Boyd said. "Vote yes if you would like to support farmers and protect farmland. Vote yes if you are concerned about the impact of climate change and want to discourage indoor growing or, at least, minimize its impact. Vote yes if you are uncomfortable growing cannabis in your town but recognize that Article 29 reduces options for growing cannabis and provides greater protection for your neighbors."
In the end, 82 percent of the voters in attendance joined Boyd in voting yes.
Afterward, she said she did not know which way the vote would go when she arrived at the meeting.
"There have been a lot of difficult discussions this year," Boyd said. "I knew the legal people were discussing whether they would allow those big amendments. I think if we were going to look at banning cultivation versus allowing cultivation, I don't know how to predict that. But once that was off the table, it's clear to everybody that putting the controls in place that we have is what was best for our town."