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Industrial weed facility faces headwinds at selectmen’s hearing

After nearly two hours of sometimes contentious deliberations, the New Marlborough Board of Selectmen voted to continue the public hearing on the permit in order to give both Oasis CEO Joshua Seitz and the town more time to gather additional information and consider the proposal.

New Marlborough — Planning and land use seem to stir passions in this remote hilltown like nothing else. Harken back to November 2013 when the line to get into town hall for a special town meeting on changing the town’s zoning code snaked out the front door and onto Mill River-Southfield Road.

Last night (March 12) it was a proposal for an industrial-scale marijuana cultivation and production facility. The 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.

Doug Newman, an abutter to the property, holds up a print out describing a spotted salamander – a native species he says could be imperiled by the proposed cannabis production facility. Photo: Terry Cowgill

After nearly two hours of sometimes contentious deliberations, the New Marlborough Board of Selectmen, which is acting as the permit-granting authority, voted to continue the public hearing on the permit to Wednesday, April 25, so as to give both Oasis CEO Joshua Seitz and the town more time to gather additional information and consider the proposal.

Approximately 150 people packed the upstairs meeting room in Town Hall. Seitz and his attorney, Peter Puciloski, gave a PowerPoint presentation – delayed by 20 minutes because of technical difficulties – outlining the proposal, which detractors say is lacking specificity.

See video below of attorney Peter Puciloski making a presentation and applicant Joshua Seitz answering questions and clarifying:

Puciloski reiterated many of the points made in Friday’s Edge article and in the earlier iteration of the PowerPoint he gave to the New Marlborough Planning Board the previous week. Puciloski tried reassure the crowd that the facility would not be intrusive. He said the nearest home would be about 600 feet from the nearest structure on the campus. And he emphasized the presence of 24/7 security, though personnel probably would not be armed.

“All the construction, except for the security building, will be within gravel pit itself and the existing topography will act as a berm to shield it from any public view,” Puciloski explained.

There will be four greenhouses of 13,000 square feet each for growing the product, along with four additional buildings related to manufacture and security, including a testing laboratory and a commercial kitchen to produce edibles and concentrates. Earlier reports about a lodging facility and solar-power array are not accurate, Puciloski said.

Some attendees were concerned about nutrient-rich run-off and the impact it would have on nearby Lake Buel and the fragile ecosystem of that part of town. But Puciloski said that run-off from the irrigation of the plants – an estimated half a gallon of water per day per plant – would be captured by floor drains and directed to a cistern where it would be recycled.

Attorney Jesse Belcher-Timme says the facility would be like ‘dropping a prison down in the middle of New Marlborough.’ Photo: Terry Cowgill

Puciloski also went to great lengths to cite outside research such as a final program environmental impact report prepared last year by the California Department of Food and Agriculture on the legalization of marijuana. Click here to read the executive summary. Puciloski described its conclusions as “fairly benign.”

After Puciloski’s 15-minute presentation, members of the audience were unconvinced. Officials from the town planning board, the conservation commission and health department all either had concerns or unanswered questions.

And several abutting and neighboring property owners opposed to the proposal have hired an attorney to represent them. Jesse W. Belcher-Timme of the Northampton firm of Doherty, Wallace, Pillsbury & Murphy wrote a letter to the selectmen last week outlining his clients’ concerns.

Belcher-Timme pronounced the proposal something that the town’s zoning bylaws had not “contemplated.” He further noted that the state-mandated security regulations and size of the greenhouses “puts it outside of an unobtrusive commercial use.”

“This will be more akin to dropping a prison down in the middle of New Marlborough,” Belcher-Timme said.

See video below of attorney Jesse Belcher-Timme:

He also pointed out, as did other members of the audience such as former planning board chairperson Holly Morse, that state law does not recognize marijuana production as agriculture. So the traditional “deference” given to agriculture by rural towns such as New Marlborough does not apply here. Those state laws were amended last year after the 2016 ballot initiative that legalized the sale and use of recreational marijuana.

He was also concerned about light, noise, electricity use, and impact on the aquifer and on wildlife from fencing and security. Few of these issues are addressed adequately, he said, because of a lack of specifics in the proposal. There has been no traffic study or storm-water management plan, for example.

“The first thing to consider here is how little there is to consider,” said Belcher-Timme, himself the chairman of the Easthampton Planning Board. “The application is full of questions marks.”

The lack of details is so pronounced, Belcher-Timme concluded, that “it would be incredibly negligent to allow a special permit based on the information presented right here.” His final statement drew applause from the partisan crowd.

One of the abutters Belcher-Timm represents, Doug Newman, reiterated several concerns about the project he enumerated to the Edge last week. Newman even brought in a prop – a print-out of the indigenous spotted salamander he said would be endangered by the project.

See video below of Peggy Richard and Doug Newman expressing concerns:

Morse later told The Edge that she shares the concerns expressed about the scale of the project and that, while commercial greenhouses are allowed by special permit, she is convinced that the operation would not fall under agriculture.

“And since marijuana manufacture has been classified by the state as not agriculture, I don’t believe this mixed-use high security facility can be viewed as agriculture,” Morse said. “But even if it could, it would be excluded from a by-rights use because of the greenhouses.” Still, she does not believe the scale of the project merits the approval of a special permit.

Some have suggested that the selectmen might approve the project if the applicant satisfies their environmental concerns because of the tax revenues it will provide to the towns.

Former New Marlborough Planning Board Chairperson Holly Morse outlines her opposition. At right is her husband Dr. Michael Lipson. Photo: Terry Cowgill

The market value of the facility after it’s completed is estimated to be between $8 million and $9 million, which would generate between $83,600 and $94,050 in real estate taxes per year. In addition, some of the equipment associated with the business would be subject to the town’s personal property tax.

And the state Cannabis Control Commission allows municipalities to impose a community impact fee on cannabis manufacturers that can run as high as 3 percent of the gross sales of cultivators using the property. There was little discussion of the tax revenue impact on Monday but Morse said she thought approving the project for the revenue would be shortsighted and that it would “fly in the face” of the town’s zoning bylaws and its many planning documents.

Film director and special-effects guru Doug Trumbull said, when he wanted to build a movie studio on his Southfield property, he went through the special permitting process with the New Marlborough Board of Selectmen.

Filmmaker Doug Trumbull raises questions about the integrity of the proposed physical plant and recalls his own experience with the special permitting process. Photo: Terry Cowgill

“It’s back in the woods, no one sees it, no one hears it, nobody knows it’s there,” Trumbull said. “And I do know from our process that we had to provide very specific building plans.” Such specifics are lacking in the Oasis proposal, he added.

As for the lack of specificity in the Oasis proposal, Puciloski has attributed much of it to the state Cannabis Control Commission, which was formed last year to implement the 2016 ballot initiative that legalized the sale and use of recreational marijuana. The commission only last week approved final regulations on licensing and implementation of the adult-use cannabis industry in Massachusetts.

Puciloski also said many of the specifics depend on what the tenants want. And he added that it is difficult, if not impossible, to attract prospective tenant-growers to the site until it is fully permitted by the town and the state.

The selectmen had similar questions and some of them also focused on specific environmental and logistical concerns. But the comment of Selectman Nat Yohalem seemed to sum it up best: “I don’t have enough information.” See video below of their discussion:

At one point, Newman asked all those who were opposed to the proposal to stand. Only a handful remained seated. Near the end of the meeting, one man read a statement endorsing the project. He was the only person to speak in favor of it.

Hartsville-New Marlborough Road resident Tom Stalker told the audience he supported the proposal because of the “potential economic benefits to our town.” Aside from the tax revenue, between 35 and 50 jobs would be created and the construction of the facility would no doubt employ “some local tradesmen.”

All but a few members of the audience stand up after Doug Newman asked those who opposed the project to rise. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Stalker cautioned that appropriate environmental and planning concerns must be addressed, but the benefits would be significant for the cash-strapped town:

“This development would surely provide the town’s largest single tax income from property and host taxes … continuous income that would help us budget and respond to make infrastructure repairs and an ever-increasing school budget and payroll related expenses, and possibly monetary assistance in obtaining a broadband solution.”

Tom Stalker, seated at left, was the only town resident to speak in favor of the proposal. Holding the microphone is Marilyn Fracasso. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Stalker’s words elicited no applause. He added that, “I feel that we should negotiate Mr. Seitz’s proposal rather than saying, ‘You are not welcome here.’ ”

The public hearing on the Oasis proposal will resume Wednesday, April 25, at 6 p.m. in Town Hall.

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