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Williamstown Ag Commission Weighs Tabling of Two Pot Bylaw Proposals
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
03:36AM / Tuesday, August 11, 2020
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Agricultural Commission on Monday floated the idea of recommending town meeting next week take no action on either marijuana bylaw amendment on the warrant.
Faced with the prospect of a meeting with lower than typical turnout because of the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with a complicated debate over dueling land-use articles, Ag Commission Chair Sarah Gardner asked her colleagues whether it makes more sense for the meeting to table both the article proposed by the Planning Board and the article the commissioners drafted and put on the warrant via citizens petition.
"I'm nervous about voting on something so important with a small turnout," Gardner said.
Commissioner Brian Cole emphasized her point.
"I'm inclined not to go to town meeting, and I'm young and apt to survive if I got sick," Cole said.
Community Development Director Andrew Groff advised the commission that there are two ways for the meeting not to act on the pot bylaw proposals.
The first would be to table the articles, a motion that would require a two-thirds majority vote of the members of the Aug. 18 town meeting. The second option would be a vote on a motion to postpone consideration, which would require a simple majority, Groff said.
Gardner reminded the commission that if proponents of its bylaw — which preserves the possibility of a special permit for outdoor cultivation of pot — recommend tabling it, they would need assurance that the Planning Board was of the same opinion.
"We don't want to drop ours unless they drop theirs," Gardner said. "Currently, [the Planning Board has] a bylaw out there [Article 33] to prohibit outdoor cultivation."
The Ag Commission's draft bylaw is Article 34 on the warrant and would reverse part of Article 33 (if it passes) by recreating a path for prospective outdoor cultivation of cannabis for commercial purposes.
Making things more complicated, the Planning Board recently voted, 3-2, to recommend passage of Article 34, even though it significantly contradicts the article the board itself drafted.
Cole alluded to the complex relationship between the two articles in arguing that it might make sense to wait until a future town meeting — after the Planning Board has had another chance to craft a bylaw.
"My sense is that already this is such a confusing issue for people to grapple with because they're voting against something and for something in the same meeting," Cole said. "Given what I saw in the Select Board meeting last week, there's a lot of emotion caught up in this issue, and a lot of that emotion has to do with picking apart the bylaw … which obscures the whole situation even further.
"And if you don't have a robust voter turnout, it's hard to say if you're getting a fair vote one way or the other."
Groff, also the town planner, told the Ag Commission that he did not think the Planning Board has the statutory authority to propose tabling a warrant article [Article 33] that the board proposed after a public hearing. But that would not prevent another member of the meeting from proposing tabling the question.
Groff mentioned "other" controversial issues that have been tabled in the past. In 2013, that was the path town meeting took to hit the pause button when faced with a pair of contradictory articles regarding possible development of the town-owned Lowry property for affordable housing.
He recommended that if Ag Commission members were interested in following that path they should reach out to Town Moderator Adam Filson to talk about potential framing of a motion that would accomplish that goal.
The entire conversation was reminiscent of an idea the Select Board entertained in the spring: holding a town meeting to decide the town's budget and other procedural issues and holding off on potentially contentious issues — like zoning bylaw amendments — for a future meeting that could be held in its regular venue, after the immediate threat of the pandemic has ebbed.
Although the Planning Board might not be able to pull its article from the warrant, Groff noted that the board is meeting Tuesday to discuss, among other things, "town meeting preparation."
Gardner said she plans to attend Tuesday's virtual meeting of the Planning Board and asked if other members of the Ag Commission might also attend.
"We don't want to withdraw our [article] unless they withdraw theirs first," Gardner said. "Otherwise, you could have the worst possible outcome where there's a prohibition [on outdoor growth] in place.
"I don't think we can plan this ahead of time. I just wanted to discuss some options. I saw what happened at the Select Board meeting, where they didn't allow farmers to speak on this until after they voted on it. That doesn't bode well."
Last week, the Select Board conducted its annual advisory votes on all the articles on the town meeting warrant. Select Board Chair Jane Patton said she was not aware of the presence of residents looking to comment on several warrant articles until after the board voted. She then allowed the public comment, and the board ended up deciding to reconsider its vote on one warrant article.
No one from the board moved that it reconsider its advisory votes on the two marijuana articles.
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