WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Planning Board on Tuesday discussed the conditions that led to a protracted town meeting debate with no resolution on a marijuana production bylaw and how the board can help produce a different outcome this time around.
The planners agreed that a redo of the pot bylaw proposal is a priority in the next half year leading up to May's annual town meeting.
And there was consensus that more engagement is needed with the town's Agricultural Commission, which ended up bringing a competing and contradictory bylaw to last month's pandemic-delayed annual town meeting.
Chair Stephanie Boyd argued that the result of that meeting
, while frustrating in real time, was productive to the process of developing a bylaw that works for most residents of the town.
"We have to accept it might take two or maybe three years to pass a major piece of legislation," Boyd said during the board's reflection on the 2019-20 process.
"Engaging with the the Ag Commission, I found, was personally rewarding to feel like we're trying to help an important constituency in our town, and I want to figure out how to do that together down the road."
Several members of the board noted that part of the issue with the development of the body's proposal for town meeting 2020 is that advocates of allowing commercial outdoor pot production — like the Ag Commission — did not join the debate until the Planning Board's bylaw was drafted.
"I think one of the things that didn't go as well as any of us probably hoped was the public perception of public participation in the marijuana debate," Chris Winters said. "Part of that is the folks who came out most strongly the earliest were in opposition [to outdoor growth] — energized by the specific [Massflora
] proposal of a year ago. Those were the passionate voices. The other side of the issue wasn't heard from."
Boyd noted that the Planning Board worked on the pot issue and another bylaw on which town meeting chose to take no action (long and common driveways) starting in the summer of 2019, and it held its public hearings on its proposal before the COVID-19 pandemic and before the Ag Commission unveiled its proposed bylaw to allow continued but more restricted outdoor pot production.
"It would behoove us, perhaps, to seek out the other side of the argument so we would have the benefit of those voices in the room," Winters said.
A member of a farming family told the board that people in that industry are disadvantaged when it comes to engaging in public meetings.
"There are some pretty major systemic issues with town government where people who have a lot more going on in their lives don't have the time or the mental energy to be as involved as other parties," Sarah Lipinski said. "When you look at farmers versus the opponents [of outdoor marijuana production] who generally seem to be older, retired folks.
"It's kind of hard to compete with letter writing. I didn't write a letter. I didn't really have time to. But I made sure I had the time to be here tonight. I wanted to say that I do care. I think there's a lot of people who care. We just also have a lot going on in our lives."
Later, Winters said he hopes that people with opinions on both sides of the issue continue to stay as engaged as they were at the town meeting. But he acknowledged that, as the Planning Board has seen in the past, people tend to become more engaged when there is a proposal on the table.
"We're butting up against human nature here," Winters said. "We witnessed this not only last year with the marijuana thing but the year before and the year before that in the [accessory dwelling unit] and the increased number of units in neighborhoods issue where we had done a ton of work, we thought we'd done our best, and when it became real for people, a different opinion emerged.
"I don't think we're ever going to change that. When things become real for people, people start paying attention. … They tend to get involved late, and that means sometimes we go to town meeting, and [an article] fails because they got involved late, and it created confusion and doubt. And that's part of the process. That's just we're going to have to live through.
"I don't think we actually have blame in communication. I think this is just a human condition. Right now, we have the advantage that people are paying attention who have very different opinions. And the challenge for them is to remain involved. This is a political process, and you have to be part of the process, even though it's annoying. Even though it's annoying to write letters and express your opinion, you're part of the political process now."
To help aid that conversation, Boyd said she will work with Town Planner Andrew Groff to develop a page on the town's website that can be a landing spot for all the input the board receives from community members on the issue — including letters and articles that were submitted as points of reference.
And to help focus the Planning Board's efforts, Boyd committed to keep its docket more streamlined in the compressed timeline leading to what everyone hopes will be a regular annual town meeting in mid-May.
But she kept the cannabis bylaw as a high priority, one of just three on a spreadsheet of current projects maintained by the board.
Another is a look at how the town's zoning bylaws impact issues of equity and inclusion in the town. The Planning Board first raised that issue in early July. On Tuesday, Boyd appointed Planners Susan Puddester and Peter Beck to serve as liaisons from the Planning Board to the town's newly created Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Equity Committee.