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