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EDITORIAL: Fulcrum opponents should be careful what they wish for

If the permit is denied, Fulcrum could tie the town up in prolonged and expensive litigation. Or a vengeful Fulcrum could return with a different proposal -- perhaps one that is equally objectionable and does not require a special permit.

One of America’s greatest presidents once declared that “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” It remains to be seen if Great Barrington can survive as a relatively united town amid the rancor and division brought on by the legalization of recreational marijuana in 2016 and the subsequent opening of Theory Wellness, the town’s first purveyor of adult-use cannabis.

Some residents and public officials seem to be saying, “Bring it on.” After all, there is a lot of money in the business. Great Barrington’s combined revenues from the first six months of Theory’s sales after it opened on January 11, 2019, amounted to nearly $1 million. The figures for the next three months alone were almost $775,000 (the figures from the last three months of 2019 are not yet available). In other words, the town of 7,000 people, with an annual budget of only about $28 million, is on a track to collect revenues amounting to almost 10 percent of its annual operating budget.

This is great news for a town that faces enormous challenges. From aging bridges to surplus properties to the need for a new high school to its multi-million-dollar liability for retiree healthcare benefits, Great Barrington will be hard pressed to meet its financial obligations without more revenue from its already tax-weary residents. But officials are smart not to become too giddy. Those numbers will surely decline after Connecticut and New York legalize adult-use cannabis, as is expected in the next couple of years.

The bridge repairs alone could cost in excess of $11 million. A replacement for the aging Monument Mountain Regional High School could run as high as $100 million, with Great Barrington paying the lion’s share among the three member towns of the district. No price tag has been assigned to the repurposing of the closed Housatonic School into a community center, but it is widely assumed to be in the millions.

There are many people who object to allowing cannabis manufacturing and retail stores in town at all. We understand the concerns of those who don’t want to normalize cannabis and make it more available to young people. But the buying age is 21 and, while marijuana is hardly a harmless drug, it is far less dangerous than alcohol — both to the user and to those who share the road with impaired drivers.

In response to those concerns, the selectboard recently held a public forum on marijuana stores. The board wisely decided to limit the number of marijuana retailers to seven — the same number of liquor store licenses permitted in the town. But it’s very unlikely there will ever be that many marijuana stores in town. Even with several host community agreements signed over the last three years, there is precisely one store open, Theory, with two others that have recently received provisional licenses from the state. The market will likely limit the number of stores to well below the new cap.

More complicated is the matter of cannabis growing and manufacturing facilities. Their impact on the community extends well beyond traffic and lines of customers streaming out the front door. From noise to odors to water supplies to light pollution, nearby residents have justifiable cause for concern.

Fulcrum Enterprises has proposed to build a medium-sized cannabis growing and manufacturing facility on Van Deusenville Road. The site, an old gravel pit, is zoned for industry, a designation that would seem to make the location ideal for cannabis cultivation. Most of the surrounding area is also used for industrial purposes: solar arrays, a propane gas company, a welding company and a junkyard. However, there are several homes just to the north and many more on nearby Division Street.

The Fulcrum proposal has generated fierce opposition, most recently at a community outreach forum last month where dozens of residents confronted Fulcrum officials. The company announced plans to reduce the size of the proposal by 20 percent but, for various reasons, that did little to quell the opposition. The selectmen eventually agreed to let the company withdraw its proposal for a special permit without prejudice. Sources have told The Edge that Fulcrum is likely to resubmit its proposal.

If so, the Fulcrum opponents should be careful what they wish for. If the permit is denied, Fulcrum could tie the town up in prolonged and expensive litigation. Or a vengeful Fulcrum could return with a different proposal — perhaps one that is equally objectionable and does not require a special permit.

Great Barrington is a right-to-farm community. Agriculture is allowed by-right in an industrial zone. The only reason cannabis cultivation specifically requires a special permit is that the selectboard insisted on it in order to give residents input through the public hearing process. But Fulcrum could return with the intent of growing something different — say, hemp, which is related to marijuana but is very low in THC, the psychoactive ingredient that makes you high.

As residents near other such farms can attest, hemp growing causes a similar stink and, in cultivating it, Fulcrum would be engaging in an agricultural activity and could not even be required by the town to implement odor mitigation strategies, as it would in the non-agricultural activity of growing psychoactive marijuana.

Or if Fulcrum really wanted to make mischief, the company could open a dairy farm or a pig farm, or sell to another company that would start one. There are few things on earth that smell worse than pig manure — and once again, an agricultural developer would not need a special permit or be required to control the year-round odor, as opposed to cannabis cultivation, which only stinks for two or three months out of the year.

These are factors that will have to be taken into account as opponents, some of whom have lawyered up, consider their next move. Moreover, the town itself has much work to do in terms of contemplating what Great Barrington wants to be. The town’s recently formed Economic Development Committee is a move in the right direction. Cannabis will no doubt play a role, but how much of a role remains to be seen. We urge realism tempered by a dose of caution.

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