WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Planning Board last week voted unanimously to send a cannabis cultivation bylaw amendment and two less controversial zoning measures to the Select Board for inclusion on the annual town meeting warrant.
But first Chair Stephanie Boyd reviewed the steps the board took to gather input and generate consensus around the marijuana issue, which generated angst, confusion and, ultimately, no action at the 2020 annual town meeting.
Boyd talked about the feedback the Planning Board received from the Select Board; the Board of Health; the Mount Greylock Regional School Committee; the Zoning Board of Appeals, which ultimately would apply the bylaw in special permit proceedings; and the Agricultural Commission, which last year ended up writing a competing bylaw to that proposed by the Planning Board.
„It’s good to hear from other community boards on how they feel about it,” Susan Puddester said. „I think we’ve done a good job with you spearheading this, Stephanie.”
Chris Winters agreed.
„I’ve been on the Planning Board a fairly long time, and I can’t think of another issue that’s had such broad outreach, broad input, including from many people who have been to our meetings and are here tonight,” Winters said. „We’ve had a deliberative process that puts some guardrails around the issue of indoor and outdoor cultivation that aren’t there now because the last time we had a marijuana bylaw was before the state defined the legal framework.”
That bylaw was passed in 2017, just months after a statewide November 2016 referendum decriminalized pot. It was passed long before the commonwealth’s Cannabis Control Commission set the ground rules for cannabis production and sale in Massachusetts and it lacked the setback, screening and odor mitigation requirements written into the 2021 draft bylaw.
That current draft is not without its critics.
Andrew Skinner of Cluett Drive spoke at Tuesday’s meeting to try one more time to the Planning Board to reconsider bylaw language that would allow the largest cannabis farm available under state law with setbacks to neighboring properties of 150 feet (500 feet to the nearest neighboring home).
Skinner pointed to odor studies conducted in California, where the cannabis industry is better established, that indicate noxious odors can be detected up to half mile from the plants, and a study done in Great Barrington in conjunction with a proposed cannabis business in the South County town. And Skinner reminded the planners of the testimony they took from Pittsfield cannabis cultivator Suehiko Ono, who admitted that his product gives off an odor but compared it, favorably, to the smell of manure used to fertilize more conventional crops.
„There will be some smells, roughly 45-60 days of the year,” Ono told the board in December. „What is the smell of raw cow manure? I’d much rather be standing next to Ted Dobson’s [Sheffield cannabis farm] than any of the corn farms in Sheffield.
On the other hand, cannabis entrepreneur Jacob Ziemenski told the Planning Board that, „soda is more dangerous than cannabis” and shared an odor study from September 2020 that backs up his argument.
„People talking about Great Barrington, Oregon, California, who cares about those places?” said the Adams resident who owns a farm in Cheshire. „We have a certain environment in Northern Berkshire County. We have a data study we can lean on.”
Tuesday’s procedural vote by the Planning Board advances the cannabis cultivation amendment to the Select Board, which has a largely ceremonial role in placing it on the town meeting warrant. The Planning Board itself tentatively set a public hearing on the pot bylaw and other proposals for town meeting for Tuesday, April 13.
If the cultivation bylaw gets to town meeting in its current form, Williamstown residents will be asked to buck some recent local trends, including developments in places that have been held up as cannabis success stories in Planning Board meetings.
One would rezone an area of Eastlawn Cemetery and Clover Hill Farm from Limited Industrial to Residential. The parcels in question currently are undeveloped but were classified as industrial back in the time when nearby acreage on Water Street also was industrially zoned.
A second proposal would provide two slight expansions of the town’s Limited Business District to reflect the actual use of the parcels in question. In one case, a Limited Business zone on Main Street (Route 2) on the North Adams border would be expanded from the north side of the road to include a parcel on the south side, 25 Main St., the former Country Peddler. In another instance, the parcel at 248 Cole Ave. (formerly Leo’s Luncheonette and, more recently, LaPlante’s Appliance) would be wrapped into the adjacent Limited Business District across Hall Street from the property.
Both parcels are zoned General Residence but function as mixed use or business properties because of pre-existing non-conformities, but they require Zoning Board of Appeals permission whenever the businesses change hands.
The proposed changes would recognize in the zoning regime the reality „on the ground.”
„Sometimes people don’t want to go through the hassle of a purchase and sales agreement contingent on Zoning Board action,” Town Planner Andrew Groff said in explaining the rationale for the proposed changes.