WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Voters will choose between two diametrically opposed zoning bylaws on outdoor commercial pot production at next month's annual town meeting.
The Planning Board on Thursday decided not to try to alter the language of a bylaw proposal it approved back in March for the planned May town meeting.
That means the board's draft, which would make outdoor marijuana cultivation impossible throughout the town, will be opposed by a bylaw placed on the town meeting warrant by citizens petition that would allow commercial outdoor growth by special permit in the town's three rural residence districts.
The Planning Board held a virtual meeting Thursday, gathering for the first time in three months. And the planners considered whether they should take advantage of the time between now and the planned Aug. 18 annual town meeting to reconsider the prohibition on outdoor production embedded in their proposal.
The issue came up because the board members did agree to try to take another look at a different bylaw amendment they are putting before voters at town meeting.
Two factors led to that possibility. One, the board has to schedule a public hearing anyway in order to present the citizens petition pot bylaw to voters in advance of town meeting. Two, one of the other bylaws the Planning Board proposed already has been "road tested," and shown to mean not exactly what the board intended.
Town Planner Andrew Groff informed the board that Massachusetts law puts zoning bylaws into effect after they are proposed by a Planning Board and until they are ratified by town meeting.
"The [state] statute is written that way because, say you're proposing a bylaw to prevent a particularly noxious development," Groff said. "This could prevent someone from pulling permits before town meeting.
"The statute doesn't contemplate a global pandemic."
Two of the zoning bylaws proposed by the Planning Board for town meeting already have been utilized in the town. One, the bylaw on "long and common driveways" appears to have worked exactly as designed. The other, on "reforming non-conforming 1 & 2 family structures," had what board members saw as an unintended consequence.
In June, the Zoning Board of Appeals heard an application for a special permit to extend a nonconformity on an existing garage. While most of the draft bylaw's language focuses on "dwellings," section C of the draft specifies that, "A nonconforming structure may be extended, provided that: …"
The use of the word "structure" in that section appears to open the door to applications of the bylaw that board members did not intend.
"It dawned on me that we should be more explicit and say the nonconforming right only applies to dwelling units and not accessory buildings," board Chairwoman Stephanie Boyd said.
"I don't want to [reconsider the draft language] because of this property, but it brought it to mind that when I was thinking of this before — that we would extend these rights for a house. That seems sort of important. But it's not as important for a garage that's built on a property line. … I guess I would be more comfortable if we limited it to dwelling units."
Chris Winters agreed.
"It strikes me there will be vastly more garages and outbuildings that have been built right against the property lines than there will be residences," Winters said. "This will be a different scale if we go one direction or the other.
"If the intent was to be flexible with dwelling units, [altering the language] would lean toward clarifying that so the garage problem doesn't happen in the future."
The board agreed to have Groff check with town counsel to see whether it can amend the language of a bylaw proposal that previously went through the public hearing process at a new public hearing prior to town meeting.
It did not agree to take another look at the language in its marijuana bylaw.
After months of deliberation, the Planning Board this winter crafted a bylaw that defines the "emissions and odor control and mitigation plan" for indoor pot production, which would be allowable only by special permit in the town's Planned Business and LImited Industrial Zones. And the board proposed amending the town's use table to prohibit outdoor cultivation in all nine of the town's zoning districts.
A group of citizens, led by the town's Agricultural Commission, put forward an alternative bylaw proposal that would allow outdoor cultivation by special permit in Rural Residence 1, 2 and 3.
"The Agricultural Commission, representing the Williamstown farming community, unanimously supports the continued right to outdoor marijuana cultivation, which can be a financially profitable crop to help support farming operations," reads text accompanying the competing bylaw. "The proposed amendment continues to allow limited outdoor marijuana cultivation on a small-scale. The amendment addresses the concerns that residents voiced about the proposal for an outdoor growing operation on Blair Road."
A local attorney who represented many of the residents opposed to that Blair Road operation [a proposal ultimately pulled by the applicant] told the Planning Board Thursday it should not renege on the proposal it advanced in March.
Stan Parese pointed out that the Planning Board began working on the marijuana bylaw in August, conducted an open process that included testimony from members of the Ag Commission and ultimately voted 4-0-1 to send the current draft language to town meeting.
The Planning Board also heard testimony this winter from many of the same residents who, the previous March, turned out to ask the ZBA to deny a special permit for the Blair Road project.
"There was considerable interest among a group of people with whom I have an affinity because we were all part of the ZBA hearing on the Massflora petition … which was a scathing experience for that group," Parese said. "They turned out informed and prepared at two of your meetings, which were lengthy. And you followed through your process.
"So I would suggest it is not a good idea to have an engaged community be told: Thank you very much for your effort, but this is the third time we're going to make you try to persuade this town that the approach here should not be outdoor [cultivation]."
Anne Hogeland addressed the board from the "floor" of the virtual meeting and noted her own trouble connecting to the Zoom conference as a reason not to hold another public hearing on a matter that drew considerable public comment the first time around.
The majority of the board agreed that its March language should stay as is.
"I guess I approach the ones we stand behind as: If they're not broken, why should we try to fix them," Winters said. "Why relitigate that which we already voted upon and moved forward to town meeting? … If we're entertaining changing something substantial on the nonconformity one, that's a different ballgame. I think that merits a new public hearing.
"But for something that we're literally not interested in changing, I think we don't fix what is not broken."
Boyd suggested that another approach could be to pull all the zoning bylaw articles in light of the fact that August's annual town meeting will be held outdoors and likely at Williams College's Weston Field, where the public address system is not ideal for making sure all in attendance can follow a protracted debate.
A couple of her colleagues said they would be uncomfortable putting the articles off until the town can hold an indoor meeting.
"We have spent a lot of time talking about it and gotten a lot of community input," Susan Puddester said. "It might be unpleasant to sit at a town meeting and listen to the PA system. But I feel like I'd like to get this one under our belt.
"If I understand it correctly, if we don't do anything, people who want to come in and open up operations we might not support have more flexibility until we get something down in writing as a bylaw."
"I would favor moving these forward," he said. "We put the work in. We believe in them that they're the right direction for the town to go in. Government moves slowly enough. Why make it move slower?
"The people who will be at town meeting are the sorts of people who have self-identified as being that interested in town government that they would do such a thing even in this year. I think they would be understanding that the Planning Board would make its normal motions."
The Agriculture Commission actually is supporting two citizens petitions on the annual town meeting warrant.
A separate measure proposes that the town increase the number of allowing events (weddings, family reunions, etc.) that can be hosted on a Williamstown farm from six to 10 in a given year.
The original events bylaw easily passed at town meeting in 2012.
The updated events bylaw, the Ag Commission-backed marijuana bylaw and — depending on the advice of town counsel — the nonconforming structure bylaw will be the subjects of a public hearing on July 22 at 7 p.m.
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