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High times for Great Barrington? Pot shop proposals proliferate

After the planning board crafted a set of zoning regulations to deal with pot earlier this year, the selectboard reviewed them and most thought the regulations were a bit too lax since they would allow cultivation by-right in too many zones.

Great Barrington — How much is too much? That is the question town officials are asking themselves in the wake of a flurry of interest from entrepreneurs looking to open recreational marijuana stores over the last few months.

At least five parties (and perhaps six), in various stages of gaining the necessary approvals, have expressed interest in opening shops in town. One of them, Theory Wellness on Stockbridge Road, is a known quantity. Theory opened its doors last year as South County’s only medical marijuana dispensary, but will also offer recreational marijuana as soon as its license is approved.

Theory Wellness medical marijuana dispensary on Stockbridge Road in Great Barrington. Photo: Terry Cowgill

The others, however, are newly formed limited liability companies looking to take advantage of the Great Barrington market and its location, situated as it is near the state lines of New York and Connecticut, both of which have medical cannabis programs but have not yet legalized it for adult use.

At a meeting last night (July 9) of the selectboard, the planning board was present to discuss its zoning regulations concerning recreational marijuana and to answer questions on why the board had not written a limit on the number of stores into its regulations, which were passed at the annual town meeting in May.

At a July 9 meeting of Great Barrington’s selectboard and planning board, planning board member Jonathan Hankin opposed a cap on the number of pot shops in town. To his left are planning board Chair Brandee Nelson and town manager Jennifer Tabakin. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Selectboard member Kate Burke wondered why there shouldn’t be a limit of the number of pot shops “like we have on liquor stores.” She was also concerned that a crowded market would cause some of them to fail.

“It doesn’t look great to have a ton of stores,” Burke said. “We could fill a bunch of storefronts and they could be empty again.”

Planning Board Chair Brandee Nelson said her panel has only seen two applications and that the others are still works-in-progress. Of those two, Theory’s was “very professional and knowledgeable,” Nelson said, while the other, Commonwealth Cultivation, was “completely disorganized” and did not even bring a prepared site plan to a site-plan review meeting with the planning board. Nelson did not actually name those two applicants but it was obvious about whom she was talking.

Theory, Calyx Berkshire, Commonwealth Cultivation and Highminded LLC have held community outreach meetings as required by the state of all applicants. A third, proposed by Great Barrington resident Eric Cooper, is planned for 684 South Main St,, where Bizalion’s is, near the Big Y, Selectman Ed Abrahams said.

Highminded’s community outreach meeting was held only a few hours before last night’s joint meeting of the planning and select boards. Click here to see a FAQ distributed by Highminded principals Alexander Farnsworth and Adam Lippes, who plan to open the high-end pot shop in Paul Joffe’s so-called Flying Church on Main Street.

See the Edge video below of the entire outreach meeting July 9, 2018, at the Fairfield Inn & Suites on Stockbridge Road:

“We did have a discussion about limits, but there was a consensus that the market would bear that out,” Nelson said. “It was expected that there would be an initial rush.” Nelson wanted to know precisely what Burke’s concerns were.

Burke conceded that she had nothing specific but was concerned about the town’s image, with “people walking around joking” and she guessed that these shops “would look like waiting rooms.”

“Is that what we want in the town?” Burke asked rhetorically. “A lot of waiting rooms?”

Planning board member Jonathan Hankin suggested Burke’s question was no more relevant than asking how many drug stores the town wants.

At a July 9 meeting of Great Barrington’s selectboad and planning board, Ananda Timpane, who heads the Railroad Street Youth Project, suggested a cap on the number of pot shops because of the likelihood that density of shops will increase use. Photo: Terry Cowgill

“To me there is a difference,” Burke countered. “There is a drug store in New York and Connecticut. We all know people are going to come here to shop. I personally would not want to see our downtown become a dispensary.”

“We have one open now,” Nelson said, referring to Theory. “It’s very tasteful.”

“It probably won’t look much different from a law office or real estate office,” Selectman Bill Cooke added.

As part of the standard host agreement worked out with the town, applicants are pledging to donate a percentage of their profits to the town as a “community impact fee” and an annual $10,000 donation to a nonprofit of their choice. A popular recipient of that grant has been the Railroad Street Youth Project, which will use the money to fund a campaign against adolescent substance use and develop educational materials for parents and caregivers.

RSYP director Ananda Timpane suggested at least a temporary cap on the number of stores on the theory that density will likely increase pot consumption, which, she said, “We have seen in Colorado,” the first state to legalize recreational cannabis use.

Abrahams challenged that assertion, citing Colorado officials who deny increased consumption. Indeed, cannabis advocates have pointed to statistics that show that teen use of marijuana has actually decreased in Colorado, where adult recreational use was legalized in 2013 and sales began the following year. However, that assertion was rated half-true by Politifact.

Pearl Street resident Richard Ruth suggested the town “phase in” the approval of shops at a July 9 meeting between Great Barrington’s selectboard and planning board. Looking on is Selectman Kate Burke. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Pearl Street resident Richard Ruth suggested the town “phase in” the approval of shops so that officials can learn from the experience of the first shop what kinds of problems occur and what measures need to be taken in the future.

“We don’t have the facts,” Ruth said. “We have Colorado facts, Oregon facts. We need our own facts.”

But planning board member Malcolm Fick threw cold water on that idea, noting that the town cannot change the rules for applicants in midstream.

“This might have been an idea worth considering, but the cat’s out of the bag,” Fick said. “Once someone submits an application under an existing set of bylaws, we can’t retroactively roll back the existing set of bylaws.”

In the end, the boards did not reach a consensus. In the recent past, the two boards have been at odds over other aspects of the marijuana business.

After the planning board crafted a set of zoning regulations to deal with pot earlier this year, the selectboard reviewed them and most thought the regulations were a bit too lax since they would allow cultivation by-right in too many zones.

And with the exception of Cooke, members of the selectboard felt they should be the special permit-granting authority of proposed cultivation facilities rather than the planning board. That set off an occasionally tense exchange between planning board members and then-selectboard Chairman Sean Stanton back in April.

At a July 9 meeting of Great Barrington’s selectboard and planning board, Selectman Ed Abrahams enumerates some facts about the level of pot use in Colorado after legalization. At left is Selectman Steve Bannon and at right is Selectman Bill Cooke. Photo: Terry Cowgill

The cultivation, sale and use of recreational cannabis-related products were legalized in Massachusetts through a 2016 ballot initiative. Sales were expected to begin in July at fully licensed and completed retail outlets. Implementation of the new law was left to the hastily created state Cannabis Control Commission.

Theoretically, the shops can be opened this month but, as of last week, only one — an existing medical marijuana dispensary in the Worcester County town of Leicester—had been officially been awarded a license for adult use.

As an existing medical marijuana dispensary, Theory would appear to be in the best position to open the first recreational business in Great Barrington. Farnsworth said, “realistically,” he thinks Highminded can be open by the end of the year.

To review, in addition to Theory and Highminded, two brothers from Connecticut, Brian Vincent and Andy Vincent, are looking to establish a retail outlet, Commonwealth Cultivation, at 82 Railroad St. Another fledgling company, Calyx Berkshire Dispensary, wants to open its first recreational store in downtown Great Barrington in the former Joe Dagget storefront at 307 Main St. And of course, there is the possibility of Cooper’s store next to Bizalion’s.

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.


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