Egremont — Even though polls showed it would pass by a comfortable margin last November, a statewide ballot measure legalizing the possession and sale of recreational marijuana appears to have caught towns by surprise. As a result, they’re scrambling to buy time and change their zoning regulations to deal with the reality that a store could open in July 2018, the earliest date the state can issue licenses.
Some are considering temporary moratoriums to give them time to assess their zoning bylaws and relegate the facilities to appropriate parts of town. Others have already started the process of actually revising the bylaws.
The phenomenon harkens back 20 years to when towns across the country were caught flat-footed by lack of zoning regulations on the cell towers that were growing like weeds along highways and ridge lines across the fruited plain. Temporary moratoriums were the order of the day back then, too.
The Egremont Planning Board held a public hearing in Town Hall on Thursday, April 6, to hear comment on a proposed “temporary moratorium on the use of land or structures for marijuana retail sale.” The only attendee was a reporter who asked lots of questions.
“It gives us time to find out about the law,” said Planning Board Chairperson Helen Krancer. “We’ll see what other towns propose, what the attorney general says and we can then see what they’ve done and if we think it’s good.”
Bay State voters approved a 9,000-word ballot initiative that passed by a margin of 53-46 percent in the Nov. 8 election. The measure permits the use, cultivation, possession and distribution of recreational marijuana for individuals who are at least 21 years old. Voters in Egremont overhwelmingly passed the measure legalizing non-medical marijuana by 537-285, or by a margin of almost 30 percentage points.
Personal possession of up to one ounce and the ability to grow up to 12 plants per household became legal in very short order on Dec. 16, 2016. But as is the case with many ballot initiatives, certain other details were hard to come by — especially those governing retail sales — and the state Legislature on Beacon Hill wanted to put in its own two cents.
So a Cannabis Control Commission is in the process of being established. The CCC will be responsible for issuing licenses and coming up with regulations for the cultivation and sale of recreational marijuana. But until specific state regulations are set up by March 15, 2018, towns are left guessing, which is why some are considering temporary moratoriums.
KP Law, the former Kopelman and Paige law firm that represents towns and cities across the state, has put out a fact sheet and timeline that covers what’s known about the recreational marijuana program so far.
The Becket Board of Selectmen last week recommended to annual town meeting a temporary moratorium on cultivation and retail recreational establishments that runs through Dec. 31, 2018, said Bill Elovirta, who chairs the Board of Selectmen.
Elovirta said he and fellow Selectman Jeanne Pryor last week attended a meeting of the Select Boards Association of the Hampshire Council of Governments, where a representative of the state Attorney General’s office said the office recommends that municipalities enact these moratoriums. A draft moratorium will need to be approved by the selectmen and will likely be on the warrant for the May 13 annual town meeting in Becket.
The town of Lenox has been spurred into proposing zoning bylaws because of a recent applicant for a medical marijuana dispensary. The cultivation and sale of medical marijuana was approved statewide by voters in 2013.
Lenox Planning Board Chairman Kameron Spaulding says his board will have a public session Tuesday night, April 11. If the Planning Board and the selectmen approve of the pot bylaws and moratorium, a public hearing will be held on April 25 in advance of the annual town meeting on May 4.
Spaulding says the proposed bylaw on medical marijuana is similar to what Great Barrington already has on the books. It allows dispensaries by-right in specific, commercial districts subject to Planning Board site plan review. Special permits may be required if the site cannot meet certain buffer requirements.
In addition, the town will consider a temporary moratorium on recreational marijuana retail facilities through Dec. 31, 2017, which Spaulding thinks will give Lenox enough time to come up with a set of appropriate regulations.
“We should know enough about the new regs by then, but not everything,” Spaulding said. “At least this will give us enough time to have a discussion.”
Well to our north, Williamstown has taken it a step further. Rather than pursuing a moratorium, the Planning Board is actually proposing specific regulations to deal with recreational marijuana outlets.
“We’ve been talking about this for a few months,” said Andrew Groff, Williamstown’s town planner. “The [Planning] Board thought it best to draft a narrow article with basic definitions and restrict them to specific areas of town.”
As recently as last week, the Williamstown Planning Board was considering a relatively permissive policy on the retail pot shops, allowing them by-right in three commercial districts and in another by special permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals.
But there was so much concern among audience members at an April 3 public hearing that the board opted to make the proposed bylaw more restrictive. Many audience members were concerned about shops being located in areas of town where children frequent. Now the pot shops will only be allowed by-right on Main Street (Route 2) and by special permit on a stretch of Route 7 near the Vermont line.
“It was our hope to get ahead of it and be proactive,” Groff said.
The Williamstown Planning Board decided not to consider separate zoning regulations for medical marijuana because, as far as the town is concerned, medical and non-medical outlets are similar operations.
“We lumped medical and recreational together because from a land use perspective, they’re pretty much the same,” Groff explained.
Other towns grappling with the recreational pot law include Easthampton. The Boston City Council approved a measure last year that would require marijuana dispensaries of any kind to be sited at least half a mile apart so as prevent one section of the city from bearing the onus of all the dispensaries.
“I don’t want to have another Combat Zone. I don’t want to have a pot zone, a marijuana zone,” Councilor-at-large Michael Flaherty, who sponsored the rule, told The Boston Globe. “I don’t think one neighborhood should bear the burden of all of that.”
Still others, including Westborough and Medfield, have declared themselves off-limits to recreational pot shops altogether, even though they could benefit financially from the sales.
The law’s taxing scheme calls for a 3.75 percent state excise tax that would be added to the standard 6.25 percent sales tax in Massachusetts. The state’s 351 towns and cities would have the option to levy an additional 2 percent local tax, which they can keep and spend locally.
Meanwhile, back in Egremont, the curiosity of officials was aroused after attending a Jan. 26 information session on the new law moderated by attorney Raymond Miyares and sponsored by the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission at Lenox Town Hall.
“Helen and I went to the meeting in Lenox,” said Planning Board member Don Pulfer. “We got some basic info about the proposed law. We found pretty quickly that a lot of things have not been done yet. There is no Cannabis Control Commission yet. We don’t yet know specifically what the town can regulate.”
The proposed Egremont moratorium, otherwise known as Section 4.3.7, will be on the warrant for the annual town meeting on Tuesday, May 2, at 7 p.m.