Charlemont drops pot moratorium, forms fire dept.

  • Voters line up with paper ballots as they decide on a moratorium for recreational marijuana businesses. Recorder Photo/DIANE BRONCACCIO

Recorder Staff
Published: 5/31/2018 10:24:59 PM

CHARLEMONT — On a second night of annual Town Meeting, voters defeated a moratorium on recreational marijuana establishments, backed new measures to gain a state Green Communities designation, and — in a “Back to the Future” move — voted to “establish” a fire department that the town has had for at least a century.

The fire department article was both a technicality and a practical move as the town considers sharing a fire chief and equipment with other West County towns in the future. Selectboard member Marguerite Willis explained that research turned up documents about the Charlemont Fire Department going back to 1901, “but we found no actual vote,” which could affect the department’s ability to secure grants.

“This vote is to legally establish our fire department, said interim Fire Chief Dennis Annear. Townspeople had the option of adopting one of two state laws for setting up a fire department: A “strong chief” statute, which gives a fire chief greater responsibility for how the department is run; or a “weak chief” model, in which the fire chief is directed by the Selectboard.

“The problem with the weak chief is they have to come to the Selectboard for everything,” said Selectboard Chair Sarah Reynolds. “My problem is, if we don’t trust (the fire chief) to be in charge, why would we hire him in the first place.” She added a “weak chief” would have to wait for Selectboard meetings and that Annear, a retired Orange fire chief, has much more experience with running the department than any on the Selectboard.

A paper ballot was taken, and townspeople voted 33 yes for the “strong chief” and 11 for the “weak chief” model.

Marijuana

The town vigorously debated whether to give the Planning Board time to establish zoning regulations for recreational marijuana businesses. The Planning Board was seeking a one-year moratorium on such businesses, until zoning regulations were put in place that would take into consideration industry conditions, including smells, water usage and public safety issues.

The moratorium “gives us more time to ask townspeople how they feel about marijuana,” said Planning Board member Gisela Walker. “I’m not feeling terribly strong, one way or another, but we haven’t had much time to look into it.”

Unlike other crops, marijuana isn’t classified as “agricultural,” under new state regulations, and Walker said it would be grown in enclosures of up to 20,000 square feet. “That is a very large, very ugly building,” she said.

Residents Bill and Marcia Tucci said they are interested in small farm-craft cultivation of marijuana and would like to use some of their farm for the purpose. They said a moratorium would “send a signal” to budding marijuana businesses that Charlemont is not interested. The Tuccis brought Eric Schwartz of Somerville, co-founder of Farm Bug Cooperative, to talk about the initiative for locally grown cannabis from Massachusetts farmers.

Schwartz said marijuana grown as part of the Farm Bug Co-op would be grown in greenhouses, with soil instead of hydroponics, which uses much more water. He said there would be a HVAC (heat, ventilation and air conditioning) system in the greenhouses to eliminate marijuana odors.

He said there are large-scale industrial growers trying to start cultivation centers that will eventually keep smaller businesses from entering the market. “The co-op is a way to get small businesses into the cannabis industry,” he said.

Although the cultivators would not be selling retail marijuana, Schwartz said “our co-op could have revenue coming (into Charlemont) in 2018. He said, in addition to the 3 percent local tax on retail sales, the town could receive a 3 percent “community impact fee” from the cooperative.

“What’s the downside in treating this like any other business?” asked Bob Handsaker. He said any applications for recreational marijuana businesses could go through a special permit process until a moratorium is established.

Jon Hoffman remarked that “the towns that have the strongest incentive to be in this revenue stream have said, ‘Let’s be the next in line.’ Why would we want to go to the back of the line, when it comes to having a revenue stream?”

Dana Johnson and Cara Hochhalter both spoke in favor of giving the Planning Board time to do the research on zoning considerations for marijuana-related businesses.

Kate Stevens said she would vote against the moratorium, trusting that the Planning Board will do a good job with any proposals, using “things that are already in place.”

At first, an amendment was approved to exempt marijuana cultivation from the moratorium. Then a paper-ballot vote was taken on the moratorium itself.

The vote was 24 in favor of the moratorium, 20 opposed; however, a two-thirds majority vote is needed for zoning issues, and so the moratorium was defeated.

Zoning

All other zoning issues on the warrant were approved. These included limiting the number of campers or mobile homes stored or used for temporary occupancy to one per residence in the village area, and two per residence in the rural area.

Also, a temporary occupancy permit will be required from the Board of Health. Licensed campgrounds and trailer parks are not affected by this change.

Charlemont was the final Mohawk Trail Regional School District member town to approve two regional agreement changes: one of them to spell out vocational transportation arrangements between Mohawk and its towns that send students to vocational schools, but are not members of the vocational school districts. These towns include Charlemont, Hawley, Ashfield and Plainfield. The second article takes the Rowe tuition negotiations out of the regional school district agreement.


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