NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The working group developing a retail marijuana ordinance is passing its work to the City Council and Planning Board after making some adjustments on Wednesday night.
The nearly dozen-member board was charged by Mayor Thomas Bernard to prepare an ordinance over three meetings in January with the purpose of having something on the books by the time the state begins accepting applications for cannabis facilities in April.
The goal of Wednesday's meeting, the third and final for the group, was to include input from a public hearing held last week and to make modifications if necessary. The bulk of the more than 90-minute meeting focused on the number of available licenses and the potential locations of "licensed marijuana establishments."
The group members struggled over ways to clarify the number of licenses that would be available for so-called LMEs within the city's borders. Initially, the working group had agreed to the state guidelines of 50 percent of package and alcohol licenses available. But Director of Community Development Larysa Bernstein and Christopher Gruba of Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, both of whom have been researching and facilitating the ordinance, had noted at last week's public hearing that the state has determined that 20 percent of licenses should be set aside specifically for retail.
With six retail alcohol licenses available and five issued, the city would have to allow at least two retail storefronts (the fraction would have to be rounded up to a whole number). There was the potential of having five total facilities if the first three licenses were for cultivation, manufacturing and testing. On the other hand, if the first two licenses were used for retail, that would only leave one for other LME uses.
Police Director Michael Cozzaglio suggested making both uses 20 percent of the alcohol license number, which would make the maximum number of marijuana licenses four.
But after some debate, the group opted to stick with the 50 percent, which is based more closely on the state's guidelines. Bernstein said some of the public comments were concerned that retail marijuana was already too limited and that the city shouldn't be limiting itself more.
"I think it's a good starting point where we are," said Building Inspector William Meranti.
However, the way that section was being written to encompass both ideas of 20 percent for retail and 50 percent for production, gave several members pause.
"What we were told was to make it clear, and this is clear as mud," Cozzaglio said, and Superintendent Barbara Malkas also thought the wording between the types of use and licensing was confusing.
Bernstein said she would work to separate the retail from the other uses within the ordinance to make more sense. Meranti thought it did make sense noting that ordinances were written as rules, not for general public.
"It doesn't sound like the public is having too much of a problem with non-retail establishments," added Ross Jacobs, a member of Zoning Board of Appeals. "If the ordinance is going to stand up to legal interpretation then the city and the commission should be finding ways to explain that to the people, not through the ordinance."
Bernstein also reviewed the comments made at last week's public hearing and those received by mail or email through Wednesday afternoon, describing them as "thoughtful" commentary. The public hearing, held last Wednesday in Council Chambers, lasted barely 15 minutes and had only a handful of speakers largely concerned with the making the city more welcoming to what they saw as a potential revenue stream.
Wendy Penner, director of prevention and wellness for the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition, had asked that location and signage be kept in mind when approving a retail storefront.
"I do think by having it less centrally located, less visible ... would be the best choice for our youth and the community," she said.
The group spent a long time discussing whether to include churches in the 500-foot setback and how to define a "facility where minors congregate." The city's former mayor, Richard Alcombright, and several others had asked that churches be included. They are, apparently, in the package store ordinances but had not been included in the marijuana ordinance. The language from the alcohol ordinance is being used as the basis for marijuana retail siting and zoning.
That led to a further conversation on how much that would limit access to Main Street and should that be seen as a positive or a negative.
Bernstein said the comments she'd received were about split with some residents seeing a retail marijuana shop in the downtown as an economic driver and others as a detriment to the city's reputation.
Jacob said he understood the motivations, and that for some there was a concern over "normalizing" marijuana use. Yet you could walk down Main Street right now and see people drinking alcohol in restaurants or go to one of the downtown liquor stores.
It wasn't the city's job to worry about normalizing, he said, but the job of parents and concerned organizations to instill the appropriate attitudes toward such substances. "I don't want to restrict further zoning based on the normalization argument."
Community member Carissa Sacherski said the worries she was hearing was more about residents being unsure how this all would work and how it would affect them and their community.
"I think where a lot of community members are coming from is that they're not sure what the impact will be," she said. "I think it is important to dicuss this to make sure what we're saying."
The group determined to make some minor changes — adding "places of worship" and switching out the vague "facilities where minors congregate" to "or similar facilities where organized youth activities occur" to the setbacks. The language already included schools, playgrounds and similar venues. There was still some concern that most of the downtown was now out of bounds because of the setback requirements.
"There's still a lot of opportunity on Curran Highway and the Urban Renewal [zones] ... we've already included so much, but there's still opportunity in that zone," Malkas said. "We have not limited downtown ... the opportunity is still there, we've just set the parameters."
The group also included public consumption fines consistent with those imposed on alcohol and set a local tax rate of 3 percent. Further site plan review such as hours, signage, location, and other factors would be determined through special permit process before the Planning Board.
The ordinance still has to go through the planners and City Council, which means a few more meetings and a public hearing to take in more public input.
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