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Terry Cowgill
Members of the planning board and the selectboard discuss cannabis policy June 27 during a joint meeting in Great Barrington Town Hall.

In ‘joint’ meeting, Great Barrington officials call for public info session on limiting pot shops

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By Monday, Jul 1, 2019 News 14

Great Barrington — It’s a question towns all over the state have been asking themselves since the earth moved in 2016: what to do about regulating those who want to manufacture or sell marijuana products? Now it appears that town officials want to find out directly from residents.

At a joint meeting of the planning and selectboards on Thursday, officials marveled at how broad the topic was. But after all, it was “a ‘joint’ meeting,” longtime planning board member Jonathan Hankin quipped.

“You’ve been waiting all night for that,” one of his colleagues barked.

But of course the subject itself is no laughing matter. The number of retailers the town should allow within its borders seems to be the question everyone is asking. Indeed, at the annual town meeting in May, taxpayers overwhelmingly approved an advisory resolution, endorsed by the selectboard, that the board explore placing a limit on the number of such establishments. See below:

The most effective way would be through the town’s zoning bylaws, but limits could also be effected through a policy coming from one of the town’s boards, selectboard Chairman Steve Bannon said at Thursday’s meeting. Cannabis retailing was just one of the topics explored. Others included housing and economic development. Click here to see the agenda.

See video below of a Thursday joint meeting of the planning board and selectboard discussing possible policies on cannabis establishments:

New zoning bylaws would prevent some cannabis retailers from opening merely by restricting the number of available locations. On the other hand, a policy from the selectboard placing a numerical limit would clearly prevent more retailers from opening. Most of the concerns from the public seem to be focused on cannabis retailing downtown.

Currently, there is only one adult-use recreational retailer in Great Barrington, Theory Wellness, which began sales in January after having already established itself as a medical marijuana dispensary in 2017. Theory is well north of downtown, located on Stockbridge Road near the Price Chopper shopping plaza.

In addition to Theory, there are four others planned for Great Barrington that are in the licensing stage with the state Cannabis Control Commission: Community Growth Partners, which plans to open a retail cannabis operation at 783 South Main St.; HighMinded LLC is in the licensing stage to open a store at 126 Main St.; two brothers from Connecticut plan to open a shop at 82 Railroad St., a former commercial kitchen; and Calyx Berkshire Dispensary wants to open its first recreational store in downtown Great Barrington in the former Joe Dagget storefront at 307 Main St. There are also new retail establishments opening soon in nearby Lee and Sheffield.

Planning board member Malcolm Fick, left, weighs in at a June 27 joint meeting as fellow members Jonathan Hankin and Brandee Nelson listen. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Planning board chair Brandee Nelson said an individual approached her board early this year about placing limits on cannabis facilities but there was not enough time to come up with a proposal and place it on the warrant for the annual town meeting in May.

“But we’ve also had people come before the board and ask us to limit the number of banks on Main Street and the number of real estate offices,” Nelson said.

But such objections were mostly rooted in the fact that those kinds of businesses do not bring people into town and generate foot traffic. As the long lines at Theory attest, cannabis stores do generate foot traffic, though, opponents might argue, not the right kind of foot traffic.

Nelson explained that her board has “been reluctant to limit opportunities numerically” but that she has been surprised at the number of cannabis retailers interested in setting up shop in the town.

“At present, we have one actual operating facility. I’m personally trying to be patient to see how many of those actually pan out into real businesses,” Nelson explained. “I’m not certain everyone’s going to make it through the really rigorous state process, so I’m not excited about setting a numerical limit.”

Selectman Ed Abrahams wondered aloud about exactly what the vaguely worded item on the annual town meeting warrant actually meant. He said that was the reason he was opposed to putting it on the warrant.

Signs point purchasers in the appropriate directions as staff await Theory Wellness’ first recreational customer Jan. 11. Photo: Terry Cowgill

“We don’t know what it is they’re trying to accomplish with those limits … or why they want limits,” Abrahams said. “Is it because of the parking or they don’t people walking around stoned? … Is it because they think it will dampen other tourism? We have no idea.”

Abrahams called for a public forum to find out what residents are hoping to accomplish with limits on the numbers of retailers. Selectboard member Kate Burke agreed but said she thought it was clear that voters wanted either limits or perhaps a moratorium on new host community agreements.

“It seemed so clear to me,” Burke said. “It seemed that people wanted a limit similar to the numbers that we have now.”

Bannon suggested that voters felt in the abstract that there should be no limits but once they saw so many applicants, they likely had second thoughts.

Selectboard member Leigh Davis wanted to know if there was a way to keep cannabis retailing out of the downtown corridor. Not really, said Nelson. Selling marijuana is considered retail, which is a permitted use in most of downtown.

“It seems to me that speaks to the character of the town,” said Davis, who freely admitted that, as a mother of three teenagers, she’s concerned.

“We need to protect our core so that we have a variety of traffic so that … kids aren’t walking through lines of people waiting for pot,” Davis cautioned.

Community Growth Partners has signed an agreement to purchase the former Wild Birds building across from Guido’s on South Main Street (U.S. Route 7) in order to convert it into a marijuana dispensary, the fifth in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Others noted that the more shops that open in town, the fewer problems there will be with parking and lines. Burke added that the economic climate for cannabis in Great Barrington could change dramatically when adult-use is legalized in New York and Connecticut.

“I do have concerns after it becomes legal in the other states and if all five open up,” Burke said, adding that Theory employs 40 people and a large percentage of its business is from out of state. “So then what happens to those jobs? What happens to the people who moved here or rent here? Are they just going to leave?”

Burke further characterized the town’s attitude toward marijuana retailers as “let’s see how much we can get while we can.” In the first 14 weeks after it opened on Jan. 11, Theory grossed almost $6.2 million in sales and the town of Great Barrington took in more than $370,000 in revenue from the local-option sales tax and the community impact fee Theory pays based on gross sales.

“For the time being, the amount of tax that’s being paid is phenomenal, but we all know that will come to an end,” Bannon said.

“It’s going to taper off,” Hankin said.

Burke also suggested it be made clear at a public forum that five host agreements don’t necessarily mean five stores will open.

“I don’t think that’s something people understand in the general population,” Burke continued. “They just see five and they assume that tomorrow they’re going to wake up and see five marijuana shops with lines as long as Theory’s.”

A rendering of the new Canna Provisions store on Housatonic Street in Lee, across the street from the Mass Pike exit. Company representatives expect it to open in a matter of weeks. Image courtesy Canna Provisions

And, as Nelson explained, placing limits on the kinds of stores that can be located downtown — or anywhere else, for that matter — can be problematic because of the number of empty storefronts in town. The town does, after all, have an interest in seeing them filled.

There was some speculation on whether they were empty because the landlords are holding out for a pot shop tenant or whether it’s because the rents are too high or whether it’s a symptom of the decline of brick-and-mortar retail in general.

So what kinds of measures can a municipality in Massachusetts take to limit the number of cannabis stores within its border? As it turns out, the Massachusetts Bar Association has a handy guide.

Aside from imposing a local sales tax of 3 percent (which Great Barrington has already done), the town can place restrictions on “time, place and manner” of operations, limit the number of establishments, draft host agreements that meet the community’s needs and implement a local licensing process that does not conflict with state regulations.

For obvious reasons, an outright ban at this point would be impractical. But even if the town had not yet negotiated any host agreements, a ban would be cumbersome. The authority to ban marijuana shops hinges on whether the town’s residents voted against the recreational marijuana ballot question in 2016.

If the majority of the town’s residents voted for the measure, as is the case in Great Barrington, then only the voters themselves could ban the shops, either through a town meeting or referendum. Every town and city in Berkshire County — and all but seven in western Massachusetts — voted for the recreational cannabis law.

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, by almost 30 points in Great Barrington and by almost 24 points in Sheffield. Implementation of the new law was left to the hastily created state Cannabis Control Commission. Preceding that law, medical marijuana was legalized in Massachusetts in 2012 through the same process.

Both the selectboard and the planning board agreed to take up the topic of a public information and input session at their next regular meetings.


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14 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Helen Silver says:

    With all due respect to Mr. Bannon, who is usually reasonable and careful, he is dangerously wrong on this. The Selectboard does not have the ability to impose a “policy” that Town Meeting didn’t authorize. They don’t have that power. And he shouldn’t try to take that power from the voters. They are not a legislative body and he should know that.

    The Selectboard tried to put an item on the Town Meeting warrant to impose a specific limit. Town council advised that Town Meeting can’t amend the existing zoning bylaw, which has no limits and passed with a 2/3 majority, with a regular bylaw needing a simple majority. It would have to be a zoning bylaw, going through the same process as the original bylaw with time for public input.

    If a simple majority of Town Meeting voters don’t have the legal authority to overturn a zoning bylaw, how can 5 people on a town board do it with no Town Meeting vote at all? That’s a dangerous overreach by Mr. Bannon. What’s the next town bylaw he will try to overrule by a “policy”change without bothering to wait for the legal authority from the voters.

    The voters at Town Meeting asked the Selectboard and Planning Board to look into limits and bring a proposal to Town Meeting. Shortcuts in government are dangerous.

    1. Helen says:

      To be clear, I’m not against limits. I voted for them at Town Meeting. But Imwas told Imwas voting tomask the boards to bring a proposal to the voters.
      I agree with Ms. Nelson, we should take our time and do it the right way. The planning board carefully evaluates all zoning bylaws brought to town meeting, including public hearing. Too often, the Selectboard shoots from the hip and messes up.

  2. bob says:

    as shops proliferate, they’ll saturate the market and die off on their own. the same doesn’t apply to pot “farms” which probably offer product for wider distribution beyond local consumption.

  3. Steve McAlister says:

    I suspect that Theory Wellness is seeing the business they are seeing because Great Barrington is currently one of the quickest destinations in MA from the greater NYC area. The soon-to-open Lee store, right off the MassPike, may cut into that, along with those slated for Egremont and Sheffield. But as long as marijuana can’t be legally purchased in NY, NJ or CT, the local stores will probably boom.

  4. W.C. says:

    According to Federal Law pot is still illegal when the feds starting looking at the potential the local governments are S.O.O L.

  5. JG says:

    I propose we limit the number of Liquor Stores

  6. Ted B. says:

    Perfect fit for the Housatonic School ! Grow, Process, Retail ! We got the parking TOO ! And with the monies these places make they can afford remediation of the building ! There has to be an answer here ! Maybe we could front the remediation bill and have the new marijuana place pay the town back ….in cash of course !

  7. Janice Storti says:

    I noticed yesterday when I drove into Price Chopper Plaza that there were signs on every row that designated “no parking” for the Theory Wellness patrons. If one has seen the long lines snaking around that facility, it’s easy to assume we are not talking about a five minute parking time. I have often wondered how the former bird place in the area close to Guido’s and the Big Y would handle all that parking. I feel for the residents of the private homes on the street that abuts it. Traffic is my main issue and now that both Dempsey’ and the “flying church” have each received permits, I am aghast at the parking issues the town will face. It’s already difficult to get through Great Barrington in the summer.. Imagine it with downtown pot shops. Dempseys has minimal parking. I was looking forward to visiting the “flying church” when it is completed by next summer. There will be no room for parking there once the marijuana shop opens. I think that his issue should be considered by any other venues that intend to make that their home. Isn’t parking a consideration before any licenses are given to open up shops? We don’t know what the future will bring as more and more of these shops become available. Has the local police department been part of the discussions? Locals have the advantage of knowing the short cuts to avoid town to travel freely, but visitors don’t have that option. We also have new hotels. I speak mainly of the one at the end of Railroad Street. Are there designated spots for apartment dwellers in that location? Even if there are, that lessens the parking available for all the shops on Railroad. If these “pot shops” are located in the downtown area without parking, many more people will avoid the town altogether.

    1. Laura C says:

      I am thinking the same thing. Even though Price Chopper had to put up that new fence people still park in the lot and walk over. Not sure if there are employees watching to see where they are coming from and tell them to move. The one at Dempseys has a small parking lot but people will park all along the street on both sides thus creating a traffic nightmare for the bridge. The two on Main street will be the worst ones. There will be absolutely no parking on the street for locals to shop downtown. I realize that three of them are in the preliminary stages with the State and may not even open at all or it will be years down the road. Calyx still hasn’t even got the OK yet and they have been trying for over a year. So sad what this town has become. And what are the tax revenues going towards…..who decides?

  8. Ted B. says:

    So what happens if a Theory Wellness buyer goes to Price Chopper and buys a something… of nominal value, has receipt. Keeps there car parked in PC lot …..and then goes to Theory ?

  9. Art A says:

    Much ado about nothing. Parking woes decrease at individual facilities as more shops open. The pot purchasers parking in Price Chopper is a Price Chopper issue, and they seem to be less concerned about it than some of our citizens. The market will likely be saturated, and not all of these shops will still be here in a year. That’s capitalism, folks. NY will be legal in a few years, and GB will be less of a Cannabis hub, and then citizens will complain that the tax revenues are in decline. Grow facilities do not emit significant “aroma”,and when the “aroma” occurs, it happens for a very short grow time, and the aroma will certainly be more subdued than that of any local farmer who simply fertilizes their field. Any normal thinking citizen who isn’t culturally prejudiced should be far far far more concerned about issues that crop up at liquor stores, and teen abuse, particularly revolving around nip bottles.

    Sorry folks. I know some of you don’t like it, but legalized marijuana is now the law in Massachusetts and it is here to stay.

    1. DB says:

      The sky isn’t really falling??
      Thanks for the sanity Art.

      1. Art A says:

        I honestly think some of these folks need to just lighten up and take a hit or two

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