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Of plastic water bottles and the evil weed: A preview of Great Barrington’s 2018 annual town meeting

The challenge for the state's 351 cities and towns is to revamp their zoning regulations so that they're not caught flat-footed by applications from cannabis retailers and manufacturers.

Great Barrington — Every year at the annual town meeting, budgets and zoning should tend to dominate — with a state or national issue thrown in for good measure. Last year, that national issue was immigration.

Click here to see the 27 articles on the warrant for the Great Barrington annual town meeting scheduled for Monday, May 7, at 6 p.m. in the Monument Mountain Regional High School auditorium.

If page views on The Edge and comments on social media are any indication, the item that seems to be generating the most attention and controversy is a national issue with local implications: a proposed prohibition on the sale of single-use plastic water bottles.

Much has been written about this proposal already, so we won’t repeat it all here. Click here for the first article we wrote on the plan when it was still being worked on. Click here to read a story we did earlier this week. Both have numerous comments from Edge readers. And see the letters section of the Edge to read the several missives we have received on the subject.

The old Shea’s Pine Tree Inn in Sheffield, shortly before demolition. The site is currently under construction to become a cannabis production and retail facility. Image courtesy Google Maps

Perhaps the second most controversial item on the warrant is really the result of the state law that legalized the cultivation and sale of so-called recreational marijuana. The sale of medical marijuana was legalized in 2012.

The cultivation, sale and use of recreational cannabis-related products was legalized in Massachusetts through a 2016 ballot initiative. Sales are expected to begin in July at fully licensed and completed retail outlets.

The challenge for the state’s 351 cities and towns is to revamp their zoning regulations so that they’re not caught flat-footed by applications from cannabis retailers and manufacturers.

So the Great Barrington Planning Board crafted a set of zoning regulations to deal with pot. The Great Barrington Selectboard thought the regulations were a bit too lax since they would allow cultivation by-right in too many zones. And with the exception of Bill Cooke, members of the selectboard felt they should be the special permit-granting authority rather than the Great Barrington Planning Board. That set off an occasionally tense exchange between members of the two boards.

A member of the selectboard — members haven’t said which one yet — will introduce an amendment on the floor that changes the special permit-granting authority from the planning board to the selectboard and requires a special permit in all zones. Click here to read a recent letter to The Edge from selectboard member Ed Abrahams and outgoing Chairman Sean Stanton stating the board’s position.

Planning board Chairperson Brandee Nelson has said of the largely unused mills in Housatonic, “Quite frankly, my dream is that the mills will get reused as growing facilities and come back on our tax rolls.”

Mill buildings flank the river and the remains of a bridge abutment are a testament to a time when there was thriving commerce along the river. Photo: David Scribner

That sparked an emotional conversation here and on social media, with detractors arguing that they did not want Housatonic to be known for its weed, and supporters insisting that no one else has come forward with a viable proposal for the reuse of the mills and besides, the jobs and tax revenue are needed in the cash-strapped town of Great Barrington.

Voters will have the chance to weigh in on an article that will allow the town to impose a local sales tax of 3 percent on retail sales of recreational marijuana — much like the town has a local sales tax on meals and hotel rooms.

There are no recreational marijuana facilities in Great Barrington, nor are any proposed, though one woman recently expressed interest in opening one. A cannabis production and retail facility is currently under construction on Route 7 in Sheffield, north of town. A medical marijuana dispensary, Theory Wellness, opened last year on Stockbridge Road in Great Barrington.

Also on the agenda is a proposal to rezone State Road, that section of routes 7 and 23 that stretches from the so-called Brown Bridge to the traffic light at Belcher Square where Route 23 East breaks with Route 7.

As town planner Chris Rembold told property owners in the affected areas, currently State Road is zoned for general business. That means residential structures such as homes and apartments are either out of compliance with the zoning bylaws or their use is restricted. That would make it expensive to alter your property.

State Road in the vicinity of the fire station is one of the Great Barrington neighborhoods that could see a rezoning. Photo: Terry Cowgill

“The overarching goal of this effort is to bring currently nonconforming structures and uses into conformance to the extent possible, allow for mixed uses and variety of housing options, and reduce parking requirements,” Rembold said.

Prominent among the other articles on the warrant are the big-ticket spending items: the school and town budgets. Click here to view the $11.3 million spending plan prepared by town manager Jennifer Tabakin, the selectboard and the Great Barrington Finance Committee. With a 2.1 percent increase over last year, the spending package, if approved, would result in a tax rate of $16.18 per thousand — that is, if the school district budget is also approved.

Also up for approval is $16.15 million for Great Barrington’s assessment for the operating and capital budgets of the Berkshire Hills Regional School District. That’s a 5.39 percent increase over last year and is pushing the town perilously close to its levy limit under Proposition 2½, Tabakin has said.

Town officials have made no secret of their displeasure over the increase, which was far greater than those of the other two district towns — Stockbridge and West Stockbridge — which both saw modest decreases.

The original net combined operating and capital budget proposal, after grants and reimbursements, called for spending of a little more than $28 million, an increase of some 6.37 percent from last year. That spending plan would have increased Great Barrington’s assessment (or share) by a walloping nearly 10 percent.

Great Barrington’s contribution to the regional school district passed last year. But in 2016, it failed for the first time in almost 20 years. Since both Stockbridge and West Stockbridge had approved their assessments, the score was 2-1, so Great Barrington had to formally allocate the funds to pay for the town’s share of the school budget anyway.

Great Barrington town manager Jennifer Tabakin asks for cooperation from the Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee at a meeting in March as her town faces strong budgetary pressures. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Another big spending item not included in the school or town budgets is the eight items on the warrant for voters to approve or reject relating to proposed grants totalling $513,626 to the town and various organizations from the Community Preservation Act.

Here are the grants, along with links to applications providing more details:

Rounding out the warrant articles:

A citizen petition to approve an article that states that “homeless persons are entitled to equal civil rights with other groups designated as protected classes to prevent discrimination against them under existing laws and regulations of the state.”

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