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Williamstown Planning Board Chair Stephanie Boyd discusses the pros and cons of allowing cannabis production during Tuesday's public hearing.

Williamstown Planning Board Sends Cannabis Bylaw to Town Meeting

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — In the end, the Planning Board decided on Tuesday that size doesn't matter.
Not when it comes to the canopy size of a cannabis grow area, anyway.
After taking more than two hours of testimony from the public — most of it asking the board to more severely restrict or even disallow outdoor commercial marijuana production in town — the planners put forward a zoning bylaw amendment that would allow by special permit canopies of up to 100,000 square feet, the largest size allowed by the commonwealth's Cannabis Control Commission.
Based on that testimony, the Planning Board did make a couple of significant revisions to its draft bylaw at the end of a more than three-hour public hearing.
It added language clarifying that the 150-foot front, rear and side setback will apply to the security fence that surrounds a growing area, not just the plants themselves, and it specified that the vegetative screening associated with that security fence will be as high as the fence itself (an earlier draft specified the vegetative screening be a minimum of 6 feet high).
But after a lengthy debate among the board members themselves, the panel opted not to reduce the maximum canopy size allowed in town at a number below the state maximum.
The board then voted, 4-1, to recommend adoption of the bylaw revision at June's annual town meeting, where it will need a two-thirds "super majority" vote to be added to the town code. Dante Birch cast the one vote against the recommendation.
Chair Stephanie Boyd opened the hearing's discussion of the cannabis bylaw with a power-point presentation explaining how the board got to Tuesday night and how the draft bylaw improves on a bylaw passed at town meeting in May 2017 — before the CCC created a regulatory regime after the commonwealth voted to decriminalize pot in November 2016.
Boyd foreshadowed the debate to come by acknowledging the issue of canopy size in her opening remarks.
"The big difficult question I'm getting is, ‘Last year the Agricultural Commission proposed Tier 6 [the CCC designation for maximum canopies of 50,000 square feet], so why are you proposing larger?' " Boyd said. "Last year's town meeting was a difficult situation, and we were not fully prepared to discuss a bylaw related to cannabis.
"We've done a lot more research on paper and in the field talking to people, talking to regulators. We added a lot more constraints. We couldn't see how a smaller grow area would necessarily fully address the uncertainty concerns people are expressing.
"When I talked to people at the CCC … they said they felt the best way to address concerns about odor or visual impact or crime is rules, not by changing the area from 100,000 square feet to 50,000 square feet. That's the approach we've taken."
Eight residents addressed the board at length to ask it to reconsider the bylaw in light of potential negative impacts ranging from noxious odors to crime to impacts on the water table in rural parts of town that rely on well water where commercial growers might install irrigation systems.
A common request was that the board cut the maximum allowable grow area in the bylaw to 5,000 square feet — a number that had some support at the 2020 annual town meeting.
"Last year, when you go through the back-and-forth [at town meeting], we had consensus," Melissa Cragg told the planners. "We didn't have two-thirds, but over half the people supported 5,000 square feet. Then you say you'll take it under advisement, and you come back with 100,000 square feet, which seems to me counter to what a town like Williamstown, which I think normally places a premium on compromise, wants.
"I'd strongly urge you to go with an article that's substantially smaller, with the improvements you've talked about but goes for something substantially smaller than two times the size of what didn't pass last year."
Board member Chris Winters argued that the board did compromise by adding more restrictions on cannabis production than are currently required in town under the 2017 bylaw.
"In many dimensions, the rules become stricter," Winters said.
On the other hand, the Planning Board's 2021 bylaw proposal is infinitely more permissive than the board's own 2020 bylaw proposal, which would have outright banned outdoor commercial cultivation in the town. That proposal came after the board in the fall and winter of 2020 heard almost exclusively from opponents of outdoor cultivation, many of them the same people who challenged the one special permit application filed to date under the 2017 bylaw.
By the time the town got to its pandemic-delayed annual town meeting in August of last year, it had competing bylaw amendments — one from the Planning Board and one submitted by citizens petition — and it was clear that even members of the Planning Board themselves were more sympathetic to the latter path of continuing to allow outdoor cultivation with greater restrictions.
Cragg Tuesday told the board that the town needs to get past the cannabis question and revise the bylaw one way or another. And she argued that the way to get past it is to propose a bylaw amendment that will win a two-thirds vote.
"I'm just trying to increase the probability that you'll clear the two-thirds [majority] this time," Cragg said. "You're picking a hard way to do it."
Several residents did participate in Tuesday's public hearing to give their support to the bylaw amendment as drafted, including two members of the Ag Commission, which this time around collaborated with the Planning Board on the language.
Jeanne Marklin said she is afraid that the voices of the farming community will be drowned out at town meeting.
"I feel pretty strongly that if you own agricultural land, you should be able to decide what you do on your land," Marklin said.
"My bottom line is I have faith in what [the Planning Board has] come up with, and I have faith in farmers."
But it was clear from Tuesday's testimony that some residents don't share that faith and will continue to fight against the Planning Board's 2021 proposal on the "floor" of this year's town meeting, scheduled to be held for a second straight year at Williams College's Weston Field.
Andrew Skinner, a frequent detractor in Planning Board meetings over the past several months, went point-by-point through the board's Frequently Asked Questions document explaining the bylaw proposal, pointing out what he characterized as misstatements and omissions.
Skinner said under the current proposal, if passed, would leave the town open to massive land grabs from out-of-state cannabis producers rather than help the local farmers who have been asking for a path to get into the business.
"Your bylaw as drafted is a dream for the cannabis industry," Skinner said. "The current bylaw [enacted in 2017] says smell can't go 100 feet past the property line, which is more restrictive than your nuisance clause [in the board's 2021 proposal]."
Section 70-5.3, Paragraph E of the town code specifies that, "No non-agricultural use shall cause the emission of odors detectable more than … 100 feet beyond the boundary of the premises." Under state law, cannabis production is not legally protected as an agricultural activity, unlike, for example, corn fields.
Stan Parese, an attorney who represented residents in a 2019 Zoning Board of Appeals consideration of a special permit request by Massflora, used Tuesday's hearing to focus on all the high-level security that would come along with a large-scale cannabis operation. He also dismissed the argument that the town "supported" outdoor cannabis production when it passed the 2017 bylaw, a move that at the time was framed as a step needed to have something on the books to regulate marijuana businesses when the CCC rules came out.
"At the 2017 town meeting, people barely knew what the industry was," Parese said. "If someone had said, these things require barbed wire and 24-hour security and armed guards and that people attack them with high-powered rifles, and if someone made a motion to say, ‘Let's put them next to the high school,' would anyone have voted for that?"
Most of the debate in 2017 centered on the possibility for and location of retail pot shops. And while town meeting ultimately voted, 207-36, to create a regulatory framework, it first voted on a motion that would have tabled the issue and sent the question of an outright ban on all cannabis businesses to a ballot vote. The motion to have such a ballot initiative failed to achieve a needed two-thirds majority but was favored by a majority of those in attendance by a vote of 150-102, 19 votes shy of a super majority.
After listening to all the testimony, Boyd asked her colleagues whether they wanted to consider reducing the maximum allowable canopy under the bylaw.
"I feel like we're really far apart from the people we're hearing from," Boyd said. "Going halfway, does that get us closer to agreement?"
Birch asked if the board had any room to come down from the 100,000 square foot level, but Chris Winters and Susan Puddester each argued that a 50,000 square foot "compromise" would not improve the article's chance of passage.
"If we decrease from 100,000 square feet to 50,000 square feet, does that change the issue of security?" Puddester asked. "It doesn't. … Unless we go to 5,000 square feet, I don't think we make any progress on making the people who don't want it happy, and then you don't get the potential benefit [to farmers]."
Winters put it another way.
"If you imagine an outrage meter, where 100,000 square feet is 10 and 5,000 square feet is one, it goes from 1 to 10 right away," Winters said.
Peter beck agreed.
"Folks who have said 100,000 square feet have never said 50,000 square feet would be acceptable to them," he said. "Folks who have said 5,000 square feet have never said 50,000 square feet would be acceptable."
In the end, a majority of the board favored staying with the 100,000 square foot maximum. But one member suggested opponents have an option.
"If there's a citizens group that doesn't agree … it should be in the form of a citizens petition so we aren't adding amendments on the floor at town meeting," Puddester said. "I don't want it to be more confusing than it is by adding amendments on the floor."
The deadline for submitting warrant articles by citizens petition is Monday, April 19.

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