WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The town appears to be on track to have dueling zoning bylaw amendments on marijuana at May's annual town meeting.
The Planning Board this week advanced a proposal that would update some of the language in a 2017 town bylaw, establish guidelines for odor control at indoor pot growing facilities and ban outdoor commercial cannabis production in town.
Meanwhile, the Agricultural Commission is going forward with a plan to propose a competing bylaw amendment that would allow outdoor production by special permit and with more restrictive setback requirements than currently in place.
Either proposal would need a two-thirds majority at town meeting to be enacted into law.
The draft bylaw from the Ag Commission -- which would be placed on the town meeting warrant by citizens petition -- would restrict outdoor production to about an acre of plants, according to the commission's chair.
"There is a 500-foot setback from the next house and a 75 foot property setback," Chairwoman Sarah Gardner wrote in an email replying to a request for information about the commission's plans. "Further, it's not permitted on Chapter 61 land, Agricultural Preservation Land (APR), state and town land.
"The zoning bylaw we propose is so restrictive that our mapping shows that only a handful of farmland parcels in town may be eligible. We made this decision to allay any fears the public may have about cannabis cultivation."
Those fears have been significant, particularly from residents near the Blair Road parcel that was the site of a proposed pot farm that applied to the Zoning Board of Appeals for a Special Permit last year.
Many of those same residents were back at Town Hall this winter to ask the Planning Board to include a ban on outdoor cannabis fields in the bylaw amendment it was drafting.
And several were back again last Tuesday after the chair of the Planning Board signaled that the issue of outdoor production is not yet settled.
"The idea I understood of how we got here was we had a horrific experience for 90 days [in ZBA hearings] in this room," local attorney Stanley Parese told the planners. "That was the energy of why someone knocked on your door and said, ‘Can you do something about this?' "
Parese cited legal disputes and municipal actions in communities ranging from Berkshire County to Washington State, where concerns about odor from cannabis plants led the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency to limit production to indoor facilities, he said.
"The people who showed up at those [Planning Board] meetings in January and February expressed concerns about that," Parese said. "It's not in a vacuum or from some kind of reactionary mode. There is real concern across the country about production and the odors associated with it.
"People on Blair Road encountered this first hand. The [cannabis] industry has far more information than the community tasked with coming up to speed on those issues. The experience we had in this room just about exactly a year ago is … the industry does not come out in what I'd call a forthright way and address this issue."
Parese asked the Planning Board to keep the bylaw as drafted in order to prevent future contentious hearings before the ZBA down the road.
The Planning Board never voted one way or another on whether to change the language in its draft bylaw amendment relative to outdoor production.
During the discussion -- telecast on the town's community access television station, Willinet -- it was clear that a couple members of the board were sympathetic with the argument that outdoor production, with the proper regulation, ought to be possible in town.
"We had proposed that any part of the canopy had to be 500 feet from another residence," said Planning Board Chairwoman Stephanie Boyd, referring to a prior iteration of the board's bylaw, not the one it ultimately moved to put before voters in May. "What that does is rule out a lot of properties. Just the setback issue rules out properties altogether."
Boyd confessed at one point that she was finding the issue a challenge.
"I don't know what the right answer is," she said. "Maybe that's why we need to take it to town meeting, so as a community we can decide. I don't think the five of us up here have the magic answer."
Planner Chris Winters challenged the argument that odor-causing terpenes generated by cannabis plants are any different from terpenes produced by other plants.
"If we had a farmer wanting to plant a field of Christmas trees, we would not be having this conversation," Winters said.
A third member of the five-member Planning Board, Alex Carlisle, told Parese that indoor growing facilities "have more problems associated" with them than outdoor cannabis farms.
Carlisle ultimately abstained in a 4-0-1 vote of the Planning Board to send the draft bylaw amendment, labeled Article C, to the Select Board for inclusion on the town meeting warrant.
On the other hand, Planner Dante Birch said, "given the information we have, this [Article C as drafted] is the best we can do right now, and this is something we should move forward to the town."
Parese was joined at Tuesday's public hearing by Dr. Fernando Ponce of Green River Road, who has testified to both the ZBA and Planning Board in the past. Again on Tuesday, he again presented the board with the result of research he conducted on the health impact of terpenes produced by cannabis plants.
Carlisle, Birch and Susan Puddester read into the record emailed testimony the Planning Board received from three residents advocating a ban on outdoor cannabis production. One resident, former Planning Board Chairwoman Amy Jeschawitz, emailed the board to advocate for allowing a legal path for outdoor production.
The board also heard in-person testimony from Brian Cole, a member of the Agriculture Commission, and Jake Zieminski, who grows hemp and is in the process of applying for a license to grow recreational marijuana in Cheshire.
Zieminski told the Williamstown planners that by allowing only indoor marijuana production, the town would encourage only large-scale "big cannabis" producers to build industrial facilities while harming local farmers.
The Ag Commission's Gardner, also a former member of the Planning Board, made the argument that growing cannabis could give an economic boost to struggling small farms.
"The Agricultural Commission represents farmers and as such, we are unanimously in favor of continuing to allow outdoor growing," Gardner wrote. "The state law that allows cannabis cultivation recognizes that it is a form of rural economic development and a potential boost for Massachusetts farmers.
"Financial struggles are a way of life for most farmers in the commonwealth, and cannabis is the first cash crop that's come around in about a hundred years, to paraphrase Williamstown farmer Bill Stinson, of Peace Valley Farm. Growing a small marijuana crop could help bring in much-needed revenue for farms that are facing debt and revenue shortfalls, which is too often the case."
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The Town has too many boards with too much time on their hands trying to be impo(r)tent. Anyone in Town who is struggling to pay their property taxes should be able to grow a few marijuana plants in their backyard to supplement their income as long as it does not create a nuisance. (This is more than the permitted 5? plants.) Isn't Williamstown a right to farm community?
Editor: You can grow up to 6 plants in your home (12 if there's two of you). You just can't grow them out in the open as yet. The local boards are talking about agricultural cultivation -- acres of the plants.
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