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Williamstown Voters May Be Asked to Consider Cap on Pot Shops

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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Town Manager Jason Hoch and Select Board member Jeffrey Thomas participate in Monday's meeting.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Select Board is weighing whether to let town meeting decide whether to pass a temporary limit on the number of retail marijuana establishments in the Village Beautiful.
 
Williamstown, where 61 percent of voters in 2016 voted in favor of a statewide referendum to decriminalize pot, currently has a retail store in the final phases of obtaining a green light from state regulators and another potential store beginning the approval process.
 
Select Board member Jeffrey Thomas has suggested that two may be enough and that the local market does not need any more. He therefore has proposed that the board put an article on the warrant for May's annual town meeting that would cap the number of local licenses at two for two years.
 
"Admittedly, the two years is a little arbitrary," Thomas said during a discussion with his colleagues at Monday's meeting. "The idea is to recognize the fact that we will know more about what's the right number in two years than we do now. It may be easier to let it expire, and we'll be fine."
 
Thomas said that when town meeting in 2017 voted 207-36 (85 percent in favor) to approve a zoning bylaw allowing pot peddlers in some parts of town, there were lingering unanswered questions. Likewise, when the Select Board OK'd Silver Therapeutics' application one year later, Thomas said he did not envision multiple shops in its wake.
 
"The last time we really talked about marijuana retail was almost a couple of years ago now," Thomas said. "At that time, there were some people in the community who were concerned about it being here.
 
"I felt — and most of us did — in favor of that allowing one store, the first store. ... We didn't have a discussion about how many stores there could be and should we have an upper limit. If we were to agree this is worth bringing to the town at town meeting, which would require a majority of this board [to put it on the warrant], the town could decide by simple majority whether to limit or not."
 
Resident Wendy Penner urged the board to take the step of putting the question to town meeting.
 
Penner, who works in substance abuse prevention for the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition, told the board she was addressing it Monday "primarily as a resident."
 
"In the prevention world, which traditionally through my state-funded work has focused on preventing alcohol abuse, there is a concept of retail density," Penner said. "The more [retail establishments] you have per capita, it's considered to increase the risk of youth use — not because youth are procuring from the establishments directly but because it speaks to the community attitude around these substances."
 
Thomas' colleague Andrew Hogeland said he was not convinced there was a groundswell of opposition to more marijuana retail establishments in town.
 
"There were maybe 10 people at the second applicant's information meeting," Hogeland said, referring to the Feb. 15 public information session hosted by Oregon-based Elev8 Cannabis. "Three [of the 10] were selectmen, four were owners of the building where they hope to put the store, one was a reporter. I don't know who the other two were.
 
"I'm also usually not in favor of, 'Let's ask town meeting what they think.' We should only be forwarding things that at least three of us are behind. ... We could have had a moratorium at the beginning and decided not to do.
 
"I don't feel the urge to do this."
 
At least two other members of the five-person board appeared to lean toward joining Thomas in thinking the question ought to go to the voters.
 
"The governance side of me says, 'Ask the people,' ... but this conceivably would be something where I'd say, 'Yeah, take it to town meeting, but I'll speak against it,' " Hugh Daley said.
 
Jane Patton said she has heard a lot of opposition to the burgeoning number of retail cannabis establishments in town. She admitted that was probably because she was the lone dissenting vote against the Silver Therapeutics application last year.
 
"I often say that we should be mindful of the fact that when we say, 'The town has spoken,' we have a limited number of people who come to town meeting," Patton said. "I think that if you're in the minority, your voice should be heard and have some value.
 
"I see no harm at all in equating this to alcohol, liquor or tobacco sales. There is precedent in at least one town in Berkshire County that has matched its retail sales for marijuana to existing licenses for alcohol."
 
Williamstown is limited by the commonwealth to five licenses for wine and beer sales and two "all-alcohol" retail licenses (including hard liquor) as a function of its population. The town's Board of Health has capped the number of tobacco licenses at seven.
 
Town Manager Jason Hoch, who gave counterpoints to Thomas' argument when the Select Board first addressed his proposal, reiterated some of the same points on Monday and added another data point for the board to consider.
 
"The amount of comment and concern and pushback on this second retailer [at Town Hall] has been basically little to non-existent," Hoch said.
 
"Recognize that cultivation is a whole separate dialogue."
 
Hoch noted the reason Berkshire County (and Williamstown in particular) have seen a relatively high number of retail applications given its population is that bordering states New York, Vermont and Connecticut have not legalized recreational marijuana — yet.
 
"There's a little bit of a 'gold rush,' out there, for want of a better term," Hoch said.
 
And with Vermont and New York heading down the road toward legalized pot, the rush probably will be short-lived.
 
"The window for appeal of Berkshire County will be rapidly diminishing," Hoch said. "It seems like this will, No. 1, be a self-correcting problem. No. 2, the opportunity, such as it is, if you choose to look at it that way, in the short run ... the community benefits from the capital investment in whatever building they go into whether or not these businesses succeed or fail in the long run. And for whatever time they are in business, we benefit from the revenue."
 
Massachusetts municipalities can — and Williamstown has — institute a local option tax on recreational marijuana sales.
 
Chairwoman Anne O'Connor said she has gone back and forth on the question of whether to put a retail marijuana cap to town meeting. She said she respected Hoch's argument that the market will decide for itself the appropriate number of pot shops.
 
"Nobody is coming to me to talk about marijuana," O'Connor said. "It feels like the issue is done and gone. But there's always the opportunity for people to revisit it.
 
"If we do end up sending it to town meeting, we might end up not recommending it, but it's up to the people to take a vote."
 
Marijuana was a talking point for much of the board's bi-monthly meeting on Monday.
 

Joshua Silver of Silver Therapeutics gives the board an update on his store in the Colonial Plaza.
 
Joshua Silver, the principal of Silver Therapeutics, was at Town Hall to give the board an update on his business' progress and present the town with a check for $15,000 as a downpayment on the corporation's Host Community Agreement with the town.
 
Silver said his best guess to attain final approval from the commonwealth's Cannabis Control Commission is either the end of the month or early April.
 
"We're just about to the finish line," Silver said.
 
The Select Board also considered a proposal form Hoch to establish a stabilization fund as a destination for some of the marijuana excise tax revenue the town will start receiving this calendar year.
 
Hoch has noted throughout this winter's budget discussions that he has no way to predict the amount of revenue the town will see, and it likely will go to free cash where it would be used to offset the tax rate in future years.
 
He proposed taking 25 percent of the marijuana-related revenue and putting it in a stabilization fund — essentially a municipal savings account where funds can be accrued for capital needs. Specifically, he proposed creating a new stabilization fund, in addition to town's existing stabilization fund, that would be dedicated to "recreation and public facilities."
 
Hoch said the 2016 Municipal Modernization Act created the ability of towns to dedicate up to 25 percent of a revenue stream to such a purpose.
 
Hogeland questioned the wisdom of tying up the new revenue in a stabilization fund that requires a two-thirds vote of town meeting to spend. Hoch said he did not feel that was a potential downside to the plan and that he is confident a good future project would receive support of two-thirds of the town.
 
"Why is marijuana money any different [than other town revenue]?" Hogeland asked.
 
"This is new money that we haven't already internalized into our [budget]," Hoch answered.
 
"This is a one-time opportunity," Daley said, supporting Hoch's argument to set the money aside.
 
"Could we set up a stabilization fund with the same rules [for expenditures] as the existing stabilization fund and just call it Stabilization Fund B but it has a different source?" Daley asked.
 
Thomas argued that a fund dedicated to recreation and public facilities would be beneficial.
 
"I was attracted to this because it will partially empower the [newly created ad-hoc] Parks and Recreation Committee in the sense that they can make a set of recommendations, which we've asked them to do, with the knowledge that there will be some financial support," Thomas said.
 
The board took no action on either proposal — the limit on retail marijuana or stabilization fund — each of which ultimately would need town meeting approval. Both ideas likely will come back to the board in the next few weeks as it readies the warrant for the May 21 meeting.

Tags: marijuana,   marijuana dispensary,   

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