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Terry Cowgill
Great Barrington Planning Board members Malcolm Fick, Jonathan Hankin and Brandee Nelson debate the issue of the permitting of marijuana cultivation facilities during Thursday night's meeting (April 12) in Town Hall.

GB Planning Board has a ‘vision’: ‘Marijuana mills’ in Housatonic

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By Friday, Apr 13, 2018 News 24

Great Barrington — Amid the turf war being waged between the planning board and selectboard over who should grant special permits for marijuana cultivation facilities, one bit of additional news has emerged.

At Monday’s selectboard meeting (April 9) during which a pair of planning board members sparred with the selectmen, planning board Chair Brandee Nelson told those in attendance, “Quite frankly, my dream is that the mills will get reused as growing facilities and come back on our tax rolls.”

Nelson did not elaborate but it was pretty clear she was talking about the Housatonic section of Great Barrington, since that’s the only place in the town where there are mills remaining. Selectman Dan Bailly, a Housatonic resident, shot back, “That’s your dream, my nightmare.”

Selectman Dan Bailly. Photo: David Scribner

The planning board, under the guidance of town planner Chris Rembold, has spent the better part of a year crafting a set of regulations to deal with the sale of recreational marijuana. Click here to see the final version that the planning board approved in February. The proposal will go before voters at the annual town meeting Monday, May 7.

The cultivation, sale and use of recreational cannabis-related products was legalized in Massachusetts through a 2016 ballot initiative. The measure passed by almost 7.5 percentage points statewide and by almost 30 points in Great Barrington. Implementation of the new law was left to the hastily created state Cannabis Control Commission. Sales are expected to begin in July at fully licensed and completed retail outlets.

Preceding that law, medical marijuana was legalized in Massachusetts in 2012 through the same process. In both cases, applicants must negotiate an agreement with the host community that typically results in revenue to the town based on the sales volume of the product.

If voters approve the Great Barrington bylaw, indoor cultivation of marijuana of the sort envisioned in the mills will be permitted by-right in the light industrial zone that covers much of Housatonic, including the Rising Paper and Monument mills. Click here to see the current version of the town zoning map. Or see the image of central Housatonic below:

Image courtesy town of Great Barrington

That means a cannabis entrepreneur would not need a special permit to reuse one of those mills for that purpose, freeing a developer from the expensive and time-consuming process of hiring a team to navigate the process.

“You talk about community character but yet its by-right in Housatonic,” Bailly told Nelson, referring to the relative ease in siting a facility there. “So that would alter the community character of Housatonic greatly.”

Finance committee candidate Michelle Loubert, who has lived in Housatonic for most of her life, told The Edge, “I don’t want my community to be known for its marijuana mills.” She applauded Bailly’s willingness to stand up for Housatonic.

“I would be happy to join forces with him to oppose it,” Loubert said. She did acknowledge “there are vacant storefronts on Main Street” but did not think an industrial-size cannabis manufacturing facility was a good fit.

Housatonic resident Michelle Loubert. Photo: Heather Bellow

“It’s a shame Great Barrington is willing to throw Housatonic under a bus for a quick buck,” Loubert said. Other Housatonic residents were not so sure.

“I don’t have a problem with it,” Carol Diehl said on Loubert’s Facebook page. “Now that marijuana is now legal to use, it can be produced legally, and its social effects are more benign than alcohol, which we take for granted.”

“No one would have a problem if a brewery were proposed for Housatonic,” Diehl continued. “Along with the tax benefits, which we need to relieve the burden on homeowners, it would also be an employer.”

Just how many people would an industrial-sized cannabis manufacturing facility employ and what kind of economic impact would it have? If a cannabis facility proposed in a neighboring town is any guide, quite a few and quite a bit.

In New Marlborough, a cannabis developer, Oasis Campus LLC, is applying for a special permit to build a sprawling cannabis production facility on an abandoned gravel pit near Lake Buel and abutting the Sandisfield State Forest off Route 57.

Peter Puciloski, the attorney for the applicant, said data from the state of Colorado, where recreational marijuana was legalized in 2012, indicate seven new full-time jobs per 10,000 square feet of growing space, which, in the Oasis proposal, totals a little more than 50,000 square feet. That would be at least 35 job skilled jobs, he said.

There is no such facility yet proposed in Great Barrington, so it’s impossible to know with any precision the economic impact it would have. The amount of property tax revenue generated depends of the size of the facility, its assessed value and the tax rate in the host town. Great Barrington’s current tax rate is $14.98 per thousand of assessed value.

But if the Oasis proposal is approved in New Marlborough, the developer predicts the town could see between $83,600 and $94,050 in real estate taxes per year. In addition, the equipment associated with the business would be subject to the town’s personal property tax, just as it would in Great Barrington.

Berkshire Mountain Distillers owner Chris Weld, right, and Michael Cohen answer questions from the audience at a meeting in March about their planned cannabis facility on North Main Street in Sheffield. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Then of course, the Cannabis Control Commission allows municipalities to impose a community impact fee on cannabis manufacturers that “must be reasonably related to costs imposed upon the municipality and is capped to no more than 3 percent of the gross sales of the establishment or be effective for longer than five years.”

Next door in Sheffield, a pair of businessmen including Berkshire Mountain Distillers owner Chris Weld, has started construction on a combination cultivation and retail cannabis facility on Route 7 at the site of the former Shea’s Pine Tree Inn.

Click here to see the five-year host agreement approved by the Sheffield Board of Selectmen March 20. The fee is similar to the New Marlborough arrangement and will be in the amount of 3 percent of gross retail sales of usable marijuana. Weld guesses it could be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to the town.

Revenue in that range could make a difference in Great Barrington, where upward budgetary pressures caused largely by the town’s funding obligation to the Berkshire Hills Regional School District result in the annual ritual of the cutting of town departments and programs.

Back to the mills in Housatonic. What makes them so suitable for growing marijuana and manufacturing related products? For that, The Edge turned to Jonathan Hankin, the planning board member who has argued most vociferously that his board — and not the selectboard — should be the special permit-granting authority for cannabis facilities.

Hankin, a real estate broker and retired architect, said the adaptive reuse of mills for the manufacture of cannabis has been proposed in several communities across the state.

Great Barrington Planning Board member Jonathan Hankin. Photo: Heather Bellow

In western Massachusetts alone, GTI Massachusetts NP recently opened an $8 million medical marijuana facility in a former paper mill in Holyoke. Other cannabis facilities have been eyed or proposed in empty mills or factories in Northampton, Athol and Lenox Dale.

“The advantages are obvious: You don’t have to build a building,” Hankin said. “Typically, mills have a pretty decent clear span. There’s not a lot of walls you need to take out, and no bearing walls — just posts. They’re made for this sort of thing.”

Hankin was puzzled as to why there would be so much opposition in Housatonic to such a facility. His response to opponents of marijuana production and sales in Housatonic: “You mean we’d be creating jobs and there would be people in Housatonic buying lunch and other things? What’s wrong with that?”

There is no proposal yet on the table for the reuse of one of the old mills as a cannabis facility in Housatonic, but there was a redevelopment plan in 2011 that included Monument Mills. It was put forward by Florida developer Stephen Muss.

Muss essentially proposed a riverfront village center that would have included a new firehouse, an amphitheatre along the Housatonic River, a riverwalk, two new pedestrian bridges between the village and the mills, a specialty marketplace, a culinary school, a coffee shop, a gym, office space, an inn, residential housing, art galleries including a satellite facility of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, a parking facility and roundabout.

Developer Stephen Muss, in front of Whitmore ‘Nick’ Kelley’s mill in Housatonic, in 2011. Photo: David Scribner

The board of selectmen seemed inclined to support the project but Whitmore “Nick” Kelley, who has owned Monument Mills since the 1980s, insisted he had his own plans to redevelop the mill.

Negotiations quickly fell apart when Muss’ attorney, Edward McCormick, floated a trial balloon at an open meeting: Perhaps the selectmen would want consider the possibility of taking Monument Mills by eminent domain?

It’s fair to say that the mills in Housatonic are not entirely unused. Parts of them house offices, a dance studio and even a small paper company operation. But they are terribly underused by virtually anyone’s reckoning.

Theory Wellness, a medical marijuana dispensary in Great Barrington, opened last year in a new building on Stockbridge Road. It was the first medical marijuana dispensary in Berkshire County.

An entrepreneur has approached the selectboard about opening a retail cannabis store in Great Barrington. At the March 26 selectboard meeting, Donna Norman of Calyx Berkshire Dispensary in Otis said she is interested in opening a retail store in town. Selectboard Chairman Sean Stanton urged her to schedule an appointment with Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin.

See video below of Norman’s presentation to the board:


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24 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Michelle Loubert says:

    To clarify my statement regarding empty storefronts on Main Street (Gt. Barrington) my point was that the Planning Board isn’t gung ho filling THOSE spaces with marijuana businesses but all too anxious to do so in Housatonic. Let’s hope the Select Board is the special permit granting authority with regard to this issue. It seems to me that the Select Board is willing to hit the pause button on a permit and take a broader look at the ramifications (community impact) of their actions. Planning Board? Not so much. Thumbs up (sorry Edge) to Sean Stanton and Dan Bailly for their strong and vocal stand on this issue. Yes, we do need more revenue but let’s not sell out Housatonic to do it.

    1. Brandee Nelson says:

      I hope that Michelle will remember that the Planning Board are huge supporters of sucessful redevelopment of the Housatonic Mills. Several years ago, we worked to develop the Housatonic Mills Revitalization Overlay District to broaden development opportunities beyond industry. Last year we worked to develop the Smart Growth Overlay District to incentivise high density mixed used development of the mills. Both bylaws were presented at Town meeting and passed. The mills have enormous potential and their successful redevelopment can be a tremendous asset to the Village of Housatonic and all of Great Barrington.

  2. Carol Diehl says:

    Michelle, you and I usually agree. I am still upset by the blight the solar farms have created in Housatonic, which yes, GB would not have encouraged placed on Bridge Street, Alford or Hurlburt Roads–or the fairgrounds. However Housatonic’s best use is manufacturing. That’s why I very publicly opposed Stephen Muss’s plan, which would have Disney-fied our residential village into a tourist attraction to compete with GB’s Main Street. Also, the attitudes about marijuana I’ve seen expressed about this issue sound more like the 1950’s than 2018. Although I am not a user, in my world, marijuana has been in common use since the 1960s, with no societal effects to begin to compare with those of alcohol. What’s missing from this report, however, is any input from the mill owners. Are the mills indeed available? Are there verifiable offers from such companies? Or are we getting all riled up about nothing? Meanwhile, while I do not mind these particular remarks of mine being used here, I think it would have been appropriate for Mr. Cowgill to ask my permission to quote me, as they were aired on a friend’s Facebook page set to “Friends only” not “Public”.

    1. Keith says:

      It’s outrageous that you were quoted w/out your permission — by lifting a comment from a Facebook posting. But then no one should assume the Edge is true journalism.

      1. Shawn says:

        Keith- Where did you get your journalism degree from?

    2. Terry Cowgill says:

      Carol, you’re right that it would have been nice for me to have asked for your permission and perhaps I should have as a courtesy. That said (and contrary to what Keith asserts), social media posts and comments are used routinely by journalists all over the planet, often without the writer’s permission — because it’s not needed. No one who posts on Facebook should have any reasonable expectation of privacy because the idea is to get your voice out there in the public domain. Whenever I post on Facebook or Twitter, I first ask myself if my mother would approve. Then I ask myself if I would want to see it on the front page of the New York Times. I’ve always found that to be a good rule of thumb. Thanks for reading the Edge and for your thoughtful commentary.

      1. Ellen Lahr says:

        Terry, I believe it would have been appropriate to call Carol and interview her if you found her FB post worth using. Reporting by plucking FB quotes in most cases to me can be a shortcut to real reporting. Yes it happens all the time and I oppose it as a shortcut. Make the call so that Carol is aware that her comments are being repurposed for the outposts of The Edge.

      2. Art says:

        Agreed completely, Terry. Anything posted on social media is fair game and is ripe for cherry picking comments to be used in a variety of ways, including a newspaper article. Congrats. You made your legs look journalistic point. That being said, this is a fairly small community and it’s so small that I’m even assuming that you might even know Carol. How much effort would it have taken to reach out and simply be a reporter and get some updated information? Fairly recently, an old quote of mine involving the banning of plastic bags in G.B. showed up in an article about the proposed single use bottled water ban. It was misleading, and could have been solved by a simple reach out to me. Once again…small town endeavors.

        Again…agreed. What you did broke no laws,. However, it really does appear to be a repeated practice of lazy journalism, and I’m hoping you’ll consider changing your practice of using blind quotes while I also hope The Berkshire Edge will remain mindful that it’s far too easy to lose the trust of a community it serves.

  3. Joseph Method says:

    I live in Housatonic and think Marijuana Mills would be great. I don’t really follow the objection. The manufacturing facility wouldn’t necessarily be a dispensary, although I personally wouldn’t be opposed to an outlet being there. Also, dreaming big here, what if the Country Curtains building became a processor for the hemp?

    1. Ellen Lahr says:

      I agree. Great use of otherwise obsolete industrial space. Everyone deciding to pick this issue as the next great local battle really needs to step back. It’s legal. It’s safe. It’s not harmful when used responsibly. It is helping many who are ill and in pain. It’s loaded with regs, laws and safeguards that make your local liquor store look like a candy shop for toddlers. Bring it on, along with the jobs and revenue.

  4. Michelle Loubert says:

    Yikes!!!! Now we have a Facebook thing going!

  5. dennis irvine says:

    you’re right that it would have been nice for me to have asked for your permission

  6. Keith says:

    Shawn, whoever you are: I got my masters degree in Journalism and Media Research. And spent 10 years at Time Inc. What qualifications do you have to even ask the question?

    1. Ellen Lahr says:

      Then you should know, Keith, that Carol’s FB quote was intended for a FB conversation and not a news report. She should have had a say over the context unless she was standing in a soapbox in the middle of Main Street. It’s an etiquette and ethics question. (BU journalism, 25 years on the job). There are times when FB May be a source for comments but not in this instance.

      1. Abby Pratt says:

        Don’t agree, Ellen. There’s nothing about Facebook that assumes privacy. And in this context an opinion reprinted seems to me to be perfectly legit.
        As for Housie—it seems to be losing its fight to retain its identity as a village with a life. The Ramsdell Library’s under threat, the once busy market is no longer serving its function and so on. Huge mill buildings converted to marijuana factories hardly seem like what’s needed.
        Jobs at Monument Mills rescued Displaced Persons from camps in Poland. They settled in Housatonic and helped, along with others who had lived there for a long time (including cousins of Larry’s—the Giddings and Ramsdells), to make it a real community. Sadly, being from Housie was regarded by some in Great Barrington as being from a slum; but it wasn’t true. People from Housie were proud of their roots!
        Anyway, I hope that the Selectboard gets to say who grows marijuana where. And that an effort is made to fill other vacancies, such as the former school, with more attractive tenants.

    2. Shawn says:

      Keith- Terry is a reporter and you called what he did “outrageous.” Then you asserted that the Edge is not “true journalism.”
      Makes it seem like you are an expert journalist: educated in journalism with work experience. Hence, my question.
      btw, I thought you studied Mass Communications…?

  7. Michelle Loubert says:

    OK…question…these spaces are more than likely contaminated: PCBs, chemicals used in the textile industry, asbestos. Anything produced in the mills for ingestion (whether marijuana or cookies) would, it would seem to me, be especially scrutinized. I recall speaking to someone at the state level regarding water produced by the spring at Cook’s Garage. At that time, its purpose for pool water was one thing but as drinking water, quite another; stricter regs, etc. Comments?

  8. Ted B. says:

    I really don’t think Whitmore B . Kelley would have anything to do with this ! ” Small paper company ” could that be Berkshire Paper ? Owned by the same Kelley ?

  9. Art says:

    I wonder whether those opposed to considering repurposing the long vacant and crumbling mills for marijuana cultivation understand that the window to repurposing these mills and returning them to the-town’s tax roll closes a little bit each year. I have not read an actual reason that those opposing the concept have voiced aside from not wanting any business in the area that is involved with marijuana. That’s not a zoning issue, but a personal prejudice. I wonder if the same naysayers object to selling liquor in the village or object to taverns in the area as well. By all measures I am aware of, liquor businesses stand a much bigger chance of disrupting a community than marijuana…to date. Here’s hoping those naysayers take just a bit of time and research what’s going on in other states that have legalized marijuana. It may help them to adjust to the new laws, new realities, and to begin to dispel years of myth revolving around Cannabis and human behavior.

    1. Marc says:

      Great points Art. Thank you. Prohibition didn’t stop alcohol consumption really. And now it’s legal. I hope marijuana follows suit. At least it doesn’t hurt you.

  10. dennis irvine says:

    Unlikely to serve the community long term this is not an environmentally responsible, sustainable idea or business model. Indoor cultivation uses a lot of increasingly scarce energy resources and has a large carbon footprint. We would be better off finding a creative solution that provides affordable housing .
    Not so green: how the weed industry is a glutton for fossil fuels(https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/jun/20/cannabis-climate-change-fossil-fuels)
    “Producing a few pounds of weed can have the same environmental toll as driving across America seven times – harming cities’ and states’ plans to curb emissions . . . Evan Mills, a senior scientist at the University of California, was one of the first researchers to quantify how energy hungry the nascent industry is, estimating in 2011 that indoor cannabis cultivation represents 1% of total electricity use across the US, a figure backed up by a New Frontier study last year.”

  11. Bruce says:

    Just wondering if the objection to cannabis production facilities raises the same concerns as having a brewery or distillery might? I sure don’t have any evidence, but question whether such parallel businesses increase alcohol abuse, particularly by minors, in their respective localities.

  12. Roselle Van Nostrand says:

    Year round employment in the Berkshire’s? Let’s debate that, let’s hash it out and weigh the pro’s and cons. Let the entrepreneurs go elsewhere with their innovation and investment.
    Roselle Van Nostrand
    ex.Housatonic resident

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