WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Planning Board last week began filling in some of the blanks in a new cannabis production bylaw it hopes to send to town meeting in the spring.
And it agreed to try to set up a panel discussion with outside experts for early December.
The board has been working on the marijuana question almost exclusively since the failure of its proposed bylaw at August's annual town meeting. The planners are conscious of two concerns raised in the run-up to and in the wake of that meeting: confusion over contradictory proposals from the Planning Board and the town's farming community and criticism that the 2019-20 Planning Board process did not engage enough residents.
To address the former, the board is expecting in December to hear from the town's Agricultural Commission, which drafted the competing bylaw proposal for August's meeting.
As for the latter, Susan Puddester on Tuesday cautioned her colleagues that they need to promote the panel discussion it is putting together in order "to give the community adequate time to participate."
The board also recognizes that, although it is not committed to any specific regulations that it will propose, it does want to get some language on paper for people to react to. As members have discussed on a number of occasions, a lot of residents do not tend to engage on a topic until there are proposals in black and white.
It was in that spirit that Chair Stephanie Boyd led her board Tuesday through a series of questions to find out where they stand on different elements of the bylaw for both indoor and outdoor pot production.
In general, the board members appeared to be on the same page, and they settled on a strategy to address one of the key elements to any potential regulation on outdoor grows: how to balance the interests of growers with the interest of abutters.
Dozens of residents have raised issues about the smells associated with flowering cannabis plants and raised concerns that the noxious odor would reduce both their quality of life and property values. On the flip side, farmers in town have said they need the potential revenue stream marijuana would provide to keep their family farms viable.
Planning Board member Chris Winters proposed the board draft a bylaw that creates an incentive for commercial pot growers to locate the new cash crop as far as practical from their neighbors.
"Setback is really the most important of these parameters," Winters noted as the board made its way through various elements of the potential bylaw. "Couldn't we create, essentially, incentives to increase setbacks by allowing more grow area and more canopy area for every 'X' feet concession on setback?
"Start at 100 feet, and say you can have 'X' grow area. If you go to 150 feet [of setback], you can have 'X' times 'Y' grow area. And that creates incentives for people to essentially push back from the edges and grow deeper into their property."
Town Planner Andrew Groff told the board he thought such a formula might be allowable under state law and would be "an easily enforceable mechanism if it gets structured properly."
The members of the board indicated that they liked Winters' idea in principle, but Peter Beck suggested a "simpler" version that he thought would achieve the same result.
Rather than using a mathematical formula, Beck suggested a menu of options for would-be producers based on the size of the growing license they seek from the commonwealth's Cannabis Control Commission.
"If you have Tier 1 [a license for up to 5,000 square feet of canopy], it's a 100-foot setback … If you have Tier 8 [60,000 to 70,000 square feet], it's a 400-foot setback," Beck said. "Each tier would be tied to the licensing."
The CCC offers 11 tiers of licenses, the most expansive allowing up to 100,000 square feet of canopy.
Groff said there are a number of ways of achieving the idea of a scaled approach to setback, but he liked the simplicity of Beck's proposal.
"Think of our [existing zoning bylaw's] dimensional table," Groff said. "This would almost be a dimensional table just for these uses based on the tier system.
"It would certainly be a quantifiable way to protect neighboring properties, which is what the board is trying to do."
The board agreed to do some more research into specific numbers to use in such a table before putting specifics into the draft bylaw.
Meanwhile, one of the critics of outdoor cannabis production spoke out at Tuesday's meeting to remind the board just how much opposition remains to the idea, even with the potential of greater setbacks.
"I did a field trip to Sheffield … and found the dead skunk stench," Andrew Skinner told the board. "It is real. I sent you a visual with something like 1,500 feet [from the plants] where it smelled like there was a dead skunk in the road. That was the 24th of October, which is pretty late in the season.
"People advocating for outdoor grow said things like, [the smell is present] only six to eight weeks in late summer or early fall. Some say it's four to six weeks. … Why am I smelling it in late October, when it's past the time they're talking about?"
One of the sticking points that came up in the Ag Commission's draft bylaw proposed at August's town meeting was zones where it would have allowed commercial outdoor cannabis growth. The proposal, with language lifted from an earlier iteration of the Planning Board's own bylaw, would have allowed outdoor grows in all three of the town's Rural Residence districts. At town meeting, it was pointed out by a resident on the floor that RR1 was created to protect environmentally sensitive areas that might not be appropriate for new commercial development.
The Planning Board agreed that any proposal it develops permitting outdoor cannabis production will limit the industry to RR2 and RR3.
Likewise, the planners agreed to scale back the number of districts where the bylaw would allow indoor pot production. The Planning Board's own proposal at August's town meeting (the one that would have outlawed outdoor production), allowed indoor grow facilities in the town's Limited Industrial and Planned Business zones.
The board agreed the draft bylaw would disallow indoor grows in Planned Business, a zone that runs along both sides of Main Street (Route 2) roughly from the Howard Johnson motel at the east end to the Greylock Federal Credit Union to the west.
"In practice, I don't think anyone would do it in Planned Business, so I think it's fine to roll it back to Limited Industrial," Winters said.
There are two areas of town in the Limited Industrial zone. One is a narrow strip of land on either side of the railroad tracks parallel to North Hoosac Road, where, Groff said, setback issues probably would curtail development. The other section of the zone, also hugging the railroad tracks, is at the north end of town and includes the Steinerfilm property.