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Williamstown Select Board Splits on Town Meeting Pot Articles
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
03:55AM / Thursday, August 06, 2020
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Select Board on Monday was mostly unanimous in its recommendations to town meeting about the items on the annual meeting warrant.
 
But there were a few exceptions — principally on an issue that has dominated discussions at the Planning Board for months.
 
Voters will be asked to decide 37 questions at the 7 p.m., Aug. 18 meeting, scheduled to be held for the first time on record in the great outdoors, at Williams College's Farley-Lamb Field, home to the school's football and lacrosse programs at Weston Field.
 
The first 17 items, which include some procedural matters and minor appropriations, will be part of a "consent agenda," a time-saving device the town started using at the annual meeting a couple of years ago. The articles will be read, and all voters will have the opportunity to place a hold on any individual article for further discussion, but the consent procedure potentially eliminates the need to take 17 separate voice votes on articles that routinely pass without discussion.
 
The likely most contentious issues will come further down on the warrant, when the town is asked to resolve a couple of land-use articles related to recreational marijuana.
 
Articles 33 and 34 either are diametrically opposed to one another or work in conjunction with one another, depending on one's perspective.
 
The former, a product of the Planning Board, is a followup to the bylaw the town passed in 2017 in response to the 2016 ballot initiative that decriminalized pot in the commonwealth.
 
In 2017, most of the focus was on the regulation of marijuana retail establishments, and the rules around them remain largely the same, except for aligning the language in the bylaw to match the definitions that came out of the commonwealth's Cannabis Control Commission in 2018.
 
The major change in the Planning Board draft is that it would prohibit outdoor cultivation of pot in all of the town's zoning districts, thereby avoiding the at times emotional hearings that occurred last year when the town's only applicant, to date, applied to the Zoning Board of Appeals for a special permit for an indoor/outdoor grow facility.
 
Article 33 also would create stricter rules for indoor marijuana growing facilities, forcing growers to control odor emissions and use renewable energy for at least 25 percent of their energy-intensive operations. Under the proposed bylaw amendment, indoor grow facilities would be allowed in the town's Planned Business and Limited Industrial districts by special permit from the ZBA.
 
The Planning Board's proposal spurred a citizens petition that led to Article 34, which was drafted by the town's Agricultural Commission and would allow outdoor pot production by special permit. The intent of the petitioners was to mirror Article 33 in all respects except the prohibition on outdoor production, and they, in fact, lifted language from an earlier Planning Board draft from back when that body was considering a bylaw that would have enabled outdoor production.
 
But proponents of Article 34 admit that its regulations on issues not related to outdoor growth do not completely align with Article 33, and it is possible that amendments will be brought to the floor of the meeting to harmonize the language between the two drafts.
 
Proponents of Article 34 argue that their bylaw is more restrictive of outdoor growing than what the town passed in 2017, is more restrictive than what the Planning Board was considering this winter before it decided to strike outdoor growing in all districts and would permit smaller grow areas than are allowed to commercial growers under Massachusetts law. As with all commercial pot enterprises in the town, outdoor growers would have to go through the special permit process.
 
To make the dueling bylaw amendments more — or less — complicated for voters, the same Planning Board that sent Article 33 (banning outdoor pot growth) to the warrant also voted 3-2 to recommend adoption of Article 34 (allowing outdoor pot growth).
 
The Select Board on Monday failed to achieve unanimity on either of the pot proposals.
 
On Article 33, the Planning Board amendment, the Select Board voted 3-2 to recommend adoption. Jane Patton and Jeffrey Thomas was the dissenting vote. Thomas argued that the bylaw as written is too restrictive on businesses looking to grow indoor marijuana in the town, saying that if he was an entrepreneur looking at the ordinance, "I'd say, 'I'll go somewhere else.' "
 
The Select Board voted 3-1-1 to recommend town meeting reject Article 34, the draft that came out of the Ag Commission. Anne O'Connor's was the lone vote in favor of the article. Andrew Hogeland and Hugh Daley argued that the citizens petition bylaw was too flawed to warrant adoption; Patton criticized the citizens petition for playing "fast and loose" with the facts by asserting in its explanatory language that, "Mapping of the zones and restrictions shows a limited number of locations in town where growing would be allowed," when, in fact, no such mapping has been done.
 
Thomas abstained from voting on the motion to recommend rejecting the article, arguing that he needed to see what the final article looked like after any possible amendments at the meeting.
 
The other three land-use articles on the town meeting warrant received unanimous endorsements from the Select Board with minimal discussion. Two were generated by the Planning Board: Article 31 would bring the town bylaw on non-conforming residential structures in line with opinions of the Supreme Judicial Court of the commonwealth; Article 32 would create a regulatory framework for long and common driveways, in part requiring special permits on driveways of more than 500 feet and specifying that the ZBA seek input from the fire chief before granting those permits.
 
The final land use article on the warrant, Article 35, increases the number of special events, like weddings, that can be held on farms in town.
 
Like Articles 31 and 32, Article 35 was endorsed, 5-0, by the Select Board.
 
The board split on an article that would allocate $85,000 toward an ongoing study of municipal broadband.
 
Article 20 seeks that allocation to look at the "feasibility of expansion of broadband service including market conditions, cost, operations, and technical considerations."
 
Hogeland, who has been part of a working group looking at the possibility of setting up a town-owned broadband service, said that previous study funded by $25,000 of town funds did not include marketing research to determine what the service would cost and what kind of "take rate" (i.e. adoption by consumers) could be expected.
 
Thomas began a pattern of going against the grain in Monday's meeting by voting in the minority of a 4-1 vote to recommend Article 20.
 
"I'm not seeing where this [study] is going," Thomas said. "I feel like no matter what we do as a town, Spectrum will come in at a lower price. I appreciate the work you've done on this … but I don't feel there's a voice around this that's questioning, and I'm going to be that for now.
 
"I feel like we're kind of moving along with this, however slowly, because there's a core of people who think it's a good idea, but I don't."
 
Patton disagreed, noting that the idea had support in the town before the COVID-19 pandemic, and the "work from home" realities of the COVID era only will make people more interested in municipal broadband.
 
Hogeland said he himself is not convinced that the town-owned service is "a good idea," but he does believe in doing more study to find out.
 
"In the survey we did, 50 percent of the people said they'd do this right now … another 40 percent said they need more information," Hogeland said. "This is responsive to a pretty strong sentiment that they like the idea and want to know more.
 
"To me, I'm not sure if it's a good idea or a bad idea yet."
 
Thomas did vote 5-0 to recommend town meeting accept a related measure, Article 21. This one will be decided on a rare paper ballot at the annual town gathering.
 
By law, in order to do municipal broadband, Williamstown would need to establish something called a Municipal Light Plant. Such establishment requires successful paper ballots held at least two months but not more than 13 months apart from one another. Towh Manager Jason Hoch said if town meeting OKs the light plant idea, the town could hold a second vote in the May 2021 annual town election to approve the light plant … on paper.
 
If the town ultimately decides to not have municipal broadband, then it would never act on the votes from this month or next spring. But if it decides municipal broadband is worth the incentive, these votes would allow implementation. There is no fiscal implication to the question in Article 21.
 
Hoch said Monday that voters will receive their paper ballots on Article 21 at check in to the meeting and cast them whenever they choose to leave Weston Field.
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