Becket — Much to the frustration of medical marijuana advocates, a proposal to site and build a cultivation facility in Becket has failed for the third time in seven months.
And it perpetuates an odd disconnect: More than 75 percent of the town’s residents — second highest in the state — approved a statewide ballot initiative in 2013 legalizing marijuana for medicinal use.
At a noisy and gavel-banging meeting of the Board of Selectmen on Thursday, March 23, the board voted 2-1 to endorse a letter of opposition to the plans of Ipswich Pharmaceutical Associates to build and operate a cultivation facility on a 42-acre parcel at 369 Johnson Road just north of the Mass Pike overpass in the southern end of town.
According to audience members and two selectmen, a show of hands indicated a clear majority of those in attendance were in favor of the proposal, but several abutters spoke against the project, citing concerns about security, possible crime, intrusive nighttime lighting and excessive water usage.
“NIMBY-ism won out,” Ipswich supporter and Selectwoman Jeanne Pryor said in an interview, using the popular acronym for not-in-my-backyard. “This is very disappointing to me.”
Bill Elovirta, who chairs the Board of Selectmen, says it was a case of too many objections from town residents and he’s convinced that his decision on whether to support any proposal before the board must reflect the concerns of the people he represents.
Elovirta is friends with one of the abutters who raised objections to the cultivation facility and he has acknowledged accusations of favoritism from his detractors to the effect that he was protecting his buddies.
“But as a selectman, you’re elected to vote in the best interests of the town,” Elovirta said in an interview.
Elovirta, who was Becket’s chief of police for 22 years before retiring in 2012, said he has many friends who are police officers and they almost all supported the proposal, in part because there would have been opportunities to work private security details at the Ipswich facility.
Ipswich CEO Joseph “Jodie” McCarthy did not return a message seeking comment, but Elovirta said the PowerPoint presentation given by the company was “inadequate and vague, with no step-by-step plan explaining the cultivation process, water usage or environmental impact.”
In an interview, Selectwoman Nicole Ladoux, who voted against the project, said she had some questions about security that were quickly cleared up and “it seemed like they had a good thing going.”
“But the abutters and people in the area, they didn’t want it near them,” Ladoux told The Edge. Ladoux added that she voted against Ipswich’s first proposal for a similar facility back in August at Yokum Pond for the same reasons. Both Ladoux and Elovirta voted against a letter of nonopposition to the earlier proposal, while Pryor voted for it — the same vote as on March 23.
Some residents urged the selectmen to reconsider. A second proposal from Ipswich earlier this year would have placed a similar facility at the old Robinson horse farm on Main Street (Route 8). There were fewer objections to that proposal, so the selectmen approved it by a vote of 2-1, with only Ladoux dissenting. This time, however, the sale of the property to Ipswich fell through, so it was back to square one.
Becket resident Michael Lavery, a former Marine Corps communications specialist, is a candidate for the Board of Selectmen who agrees with Pryor on the latest Ipswich proposal, which he said received approval from the town Planning Board on March 8.
“It was a rollercoaster ride and it ended poorly for IPA,” Lavery said in an interview. “There was drama and suspense right up to the end. But I’m gutted as a supporter that it ended as it did.”
Both Lavery and Pryor pointed to the fact that the latest Ipswich proposal, once brought to fruition, would have generated much-needed revenue for the town — an appealing prospect given the likelihood of an expensive renovation of Wahconah Regional High School in Dalton, where Becket sends students as part of the Central Berkshire Regional School District.
As a licensed medical marijuana dispensary, Ipswich is a nonprofit organization but in order to obtain the required letter of nonopposition from the selectmen, it has agreed to pay the town whatever it would normally owe in property taxes. In addition, Ipswich would pay the town 2.5 percent of its annual gross sales, which it estimates to be $4.5 million the first year. Lavery said the Ipswich cultivation facility would be expected to add about $110,000 per year to the town’s coffers after sales commence.
Pryor also said in 2013 Becket residents voted at a town meeting by a two-thirds majority to spend $3.8 million to bring broadband Internet to town, so new sources of revenue are especially important
“It was the largest crowd at a town meeting I’ve ever seen,” she said.
Lavery termed it “bad public relations” that abutters only received notification of the public hearing one week ahead of the scheduled date by certified letter. He insists they should have been contacted when Ipswich was looking at the land and agreed to purchase it on the condition that it obtain a letter of non-opposition from the Board of Selectmen.
Lavery is working on a master’s degree at Western New England University. His thesis is on medical marijuana. He said the state “is making it tough” to start medical marijuana facilities.
Indeed, there have been numerous complaints by medical marijuana advocates that the process of gaining access to the substance for the ill and obtaining a license to sell it simply takes too long.
The state Department of Public Health is trying to streamline the process and clarify the language in the law, while improving patient access and public safety. And there are also complaints that medical marijuana is too expensive. Last year, voters also approved legalizing the sale and possession of recreational marijuana but legislators on Beacon Hill are working out the details of the law.
By state law, all registered medical marijuana dispensaries must have nonprofit ownership, which theoretically exempts them from paying property taxes to the municipalities in which they are located.
But the dispensaries cannot be built without municipal consent and a letter of non-opposition from boards of selectmen and city councils. That allows towns to hammer out agreements requiring dispensary ownership to make payments in lieu of taxes and other fees to the host municipalities. For larger municipalities, this could result in something of a windfall if and when their facilities are actually built.
There are currently only nine licensed dispensaries in the state, which advocates say is far too few. The nearest to Berkshire County is about an hour away in Northampton. There are at least three other facilities awaiting licensing in Berkshire County — all in Pittsfield.
Theory Wellness, a Bridgewater-based nonprofit, was given the green light last year by the town of Great Barrington to operate a medical marijuana dispensary, now under construction on Stockbridge Road. Cultivation would take place in Bridgwater.
Theory Wellness President Nick Friedman told The Edge his organization has received a final certificate of registration from the state Department of Public Health and could be open for business as soon as this summer.
“We are the only group out of the entire second round of applicants, over 200 groups, to receive our Final Certificate of Registration, which has allowed us to begin cultivation,” Friedman said in an email.
“Before you begin cultivation, an opening date is speculative. Now that plants are growing, we have a much clearer timeline, and expect to open in Great Barrington in June, less than three months away.”
Is the Becket proposal dead? Ipswich isn’t talking, but Pryor said, “I can’t imagine that the other selectmen would change their minds. Why would [Ipswich] want to come back to Becket and spend more money?”