Industrial weed facility faces headwinds at selectmen’s hearing

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By Tuesday, Mar 13 News  13 Comments
Terry Cowgill
Oasis attorney Peter Puciloski, at right, makes a point to Tara White, who chairs the Board of Selectmen. At left is Town Counsel Jeremia Pollard. Photo: Terry Cowgill

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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13 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Ritch Holben says:

    Thank you, Terry, for this thorough recounting of this very important meeting. As a New Marlborough resident who was not able to attend, and has only had updates on this issue from Maggie’s List, I find it incredibly helpful. I realize that marijuana cultivation is yet another divisive topic for our “large-on-land – small-on-population” town.. (just what we needed!), but I was encouraged to read Tom Stalker’s words about the potential economic impact this new industry could have for our cash-strapped village. Here’s the deal.. New Marlborough needs money. We have bridges that have been closed for years.. roads that need repaired.. a school in dire straits for repairs and updates, a potential big bill for fiber installation… the list goes on with no end is sight. We also now have a new industry that’s legal, cash-rich and, because of State regs that require their products be grown within State boundaries, it needs open land and resources that apparently aren’t available in the greater Boston area where the demand for their pharmaceuticals are huge. One can argue one’s personal views of pot till we are all blue in the face, but the fact is that it’s a legal industry and quite possibly the last one that may have needs from which our small towns in the western part of the State may be able to benefit. This “supply and demand” opportunity may never come along again, so rather than contesting the chance for growth, let’s work together to find a way to incorporate this new industry into our infrastructure that works for everyone. Maybe this particular location or this particular developer isn’t right.. for environmental reasons, aesthetic ones, scale of project, etc. But surely, with our 57 square miles of lightly lived-on land, we must have potential sites where we all could live harmoniously. This is an opportunity that, I believe, we should not miss out on.

    1. Art Peisner says:

      Ritch:

      Based on this article, your position would not be unreasonable. However, the tax revenue benefits are completely illusory. Terry neglects to mention the presentation by Paula Hatch, former Chair of the Lake Buel Preservation District, who pointed out the negative consequences for the more than 225 property owners to whom the project would be visible, and to the towns they live in. The estimated $6-8 million increase in property value of the Oasis project would be more than offset by the decrease in the nearly $200 million assessed valuation of those properties, $60 million of which are on the New Marlborough side alone. And this doesn’t even consider the impact on the project’s direct abutters, the Town of Monterey or the Lake District itself. Puciloski referenced a study that indicated that real estate values have increased in states that have legalized marijuana, but that doesn’t say anything about those in the immediate area of a massive production facility like this. The town certainly needs money to deal with some of its problems, but selling out our quiet rural heritage is not the way to get it. Investing in broadband connectivity would do far more to increase property values and tax revenues without negative consequences.

      1. Ritch says:

        HI Art. As I said, maybe this particular site is wrong and the cons outweigh the pros. All I’m asking that there must be, over our huge range of lands, sites that would be viable and beneficial to all. As to this specific site.. (an abandoned gravel quarry, I believe?) I know I’ve never been able to see any sign of it from the road, except a driveway and a literal sign) and am curious how many of these 200 million dollar’s worth of properties you mention can view it. IS this an issue of night lighting, and if so, are there alternatives for minimizing night sky pollution via night vision cameras, etc? I’m seriously asking as I have no clue.

  2. Jean Tomich says:

    We are new residents of New Marlborough. Because of a prior commitment we were not able to attend. I understand or at least perceive how approving of this plan would boost the towns ability to take care of much needed problems. However, I wonder if growing this weed would then initiate building a store or stores that sell it over the counter. I am much in favor of medical marijuana but upon having a member of my family in Florida going from this to heroin and stating that this started him down a destructive path, I wonder if just like smoking cigarettes , it could be just as dangerous. Just sayin.

    1. Ritch says:

      Hi Jean! Welcome to New Marlborough. I certainly understand your concerns (I winter in Florida and hear plenty of debate on the issue). I cannot speak to the nature of marijuana as a “gateway drug”, but there are many studies online that you can google and see which ones seem most reliable to you. My research has shown that it’s far less dangerous (and less deadly) than alcohol, guns, tobacco, prescription drugs or bad diet. (Google “annual death rates in America”or some variation). Also, “stores” or dispensaries as our MA laws call them, are also tightly regulated by the State. The last research I did suggested that the State was considering the right for 1 dispensary license per town pending review and approval of the local government. Im not sure how that’s been resolved. But I do know that having a production facility does not give any producer the right to sell their products directly. The Berks have at least two dispensaries that I’ve heard of.. one in GB and one in Pittsfield… at least for pharmaceutical use. And to be ironically clear, I know I seem like a big proponent of big pot, ironic only because I don’t even smoke it. I don’t like how it feels and I don’t ail from any particular malady for which it has solutions. But I do respect the rights and needs of many of your neighbors who truly benefit from it as an alternative to prescription pain killers or anti-depressants. I would love to hear what you’ve found and experienced.

      1. Garnella Jean Tomich says:

        First to the Berkshire Edge, I did and also this time again put in my e-mail but I am going to write it again to assure you get it because I assume it is required: garnella5@aol.coml Now let me get to my reply to you Ritch. If you reread my letter you will see that I am very much in favor of medical marijuana. I do not know Art Peisner and Paula Hatch but I do agree with the points they have made who l am assuming like myself and my husband do not want this project to go forward. I know a family that live very close to the proposed project and I did not go far enough in our conversation as to whether she is for or against but what struck me is what she said in that we must respect each others opinion. If more people in this country had her attitude, we would not be so divisive in this great country we live in. In essence I will accept whatever decision is made.

  3. Holly Valente says:

    I have to disagree with Terry when he classifies the meeting as contentious and it was not a meeting of deliberations. The developer and the residents came for a presentation and points of view. My feeling is it was a meeting of opposites and it was a spirited meeting but it never felt contentious; we listened and disagreed and I think we did it very well.

  4. Sandra Walker says:

    I’ve not made up my mind about this proposed business and am interested in learning as much as possible. Mr. Cowgill’s article did a good job relating lots of information presented at the New Marlborough Public Hearing Monday night, which I attended.

    I agree there is much left out of the application and without more information, we cannot make an informed decision. And as the people running the businesses will be renters, I would like to know more about their responsibility to the town. Will each renter also go through a town process before being granted permission to cultivate, test or manufacture marijuana products? Does the Oasis special permit, if granted, provide a blanket license to all renters?

    Last, I don’t agree with Mr. Cowgill’s interpretation in the article that some parts of the meeting were contentious. The planning board meeting in February was contentious; this public hearing was not. Each citizen that wanted to speak had the chance to do so, and everyone listened to each other, respectfully. Lots of information and opinions were able to heard.

    Even Mr. Stalker, whose statement expressing support of the project and detailing the financial needs of New Marlborough, was politely listened to and applauded. I had to go back and listen to my Smartpen because Mr. Cowgill wrote, “Stalker’s words elicited no applause.” But he is wrong and I’m happy to share the recording so he can hear the applause himself.

    1. Terry Cowgill says:

      Well, I don’t recall hearing any applause for Mr Stalker but am happy to be corrected if I was wrong.

      As for my characterization of the meeting, I said it was “sometimes contentious,” which I do think was accurate. No one was rude but sometimes the tone was contentious, as in characterized by dispute or controversy.

      As for the use of “deliberations,” the word is typically defined as “careful consideration before decision.” Though there was some disagreement between the applicant, the audience and the board, the selectmen were the very model of deliberation. They did not reject the application out-of-hand, as they were fully empowered to do, but chose to give the applicant additional time to provide more information so that the board could make a better informed decision.

      I do agree with Mr. Peisner that I should have included the presentation by Ms Hatch and intended to do so but simply ran out of time as deadline approached. My apologies.

      Thanks for all your suggestions and thoughtful comments on this thread. You folks are good role models for the trolls who otherwise make life miserable for the rest of us … and thanks for reading the Edge.

      1. sfwalker1 says:

        I actually was surprised when I heard the applause and turned around to see where it was coming from. Then when I read your article, I pulled up my Smartpen recording to double check my memory and yes, there is definitely applause right after Tom Stalker finishes his statement. I’m happy to share that section with you if I can figure out how to extract just those few seconds.

        As to contentious, I guess it’s a matter of degree. This meeting was a healthy dialogue that allowed all sides to speak and though I saw frustration, I did not see angry people cutting speakers off or yelling opposing points.

        The article was well written and concise which is not easy to do when dealing with so many different sides of a topic. The Edge is a nice read to wake up to early in the morning.

      2. Lucinda Shmulsky says:

        Thank you for your coverage of this topic; however, what seems to be lacking in coverage is the broader perspective. States, local town governments, and school systems are all “strapped for cash” as a direct result of political decisions and Federal Reserve policies: quantitative easing, deficit spending, monetizing the debt, and setting a 2% inflation target; not due to the lack of marijuana sales.
        It is incumbent upon the State of Massachusetts to recognize the real cause of the revenue shortfall in state and local governments and proceed to correct the actual problem. Yes, we could propose a solution along the lines of what a teenager would propose if he overspent his allowance; “no problem I’ll just sell some marijuana to get some spending money,” or we could address the real problem as adults and reign in our spending, add something of value as collateral behind our currency, and become better stewards of the world reserve currency.
        If we fail to do this in a timely manner, more sovereign governments will divest themselves of US Treasuries, interest rates will rise further, and higher inflation will cause more budgetary problems, far beyond the scope of a quick marijuana fix.

  5. Art Peisner says:

    Ritch:
    You’re correct. It can’t be seen from the road, which is at a much lower elevation than the lake. The area can be seen from the lake itself as well as from any of the properties that have an unobstructed view. Of course, light, noise and other noxious odors or substances can be seen and felt throughout the area. Even without the direct impact of the facility, its proximity to the lake area will have a depressing affect on real estate sales and values. Lakefront and lake view homes are assessed at a premium. How could that possibly be justified if they are in view of and in proximity to this industrial facility? In fact, I would posit that it will have that effect on nearby real estate values wherever it is located.

  6. dk says:

    How would the neighbors and the salamanders feel about the reopening of gravel operations? Trucks, trucks and more trucks. This is soft use by comparison.

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