Heath voters reject selling school to pot farm

  • Heath Elementary School, which closed in 2017 due to consistently low enrollment rates. File Photo

Staff Writer
Published: 3/6/2019 11:05:51 PM

HEATH – Efforts to sell the shuttered elementary school hit a snag on Tuesday, when residents narrowly voted to oppose permitting the Selectboard to sell the school to a cannabis business. But the board plans to bring the issue back to voters again.

At Tuesday’s Special Town Meeting, a couple hundred residents, crammed into Community Hall and spilling into the lobby, debated the school’s fate for two hours. The vote was 95 in favor and 77 opposed – just shy of the required two-thirds majority. To ensure accuracy, residents passed a motion to use a paper ballot, instead of saying ‘aye’ or ‘nay’ as is usually done in a voice vote.

The Selectboards intend to have an informational meeting or two, before having a revote, member Gloria Cronin Fisher said Wednesday.

Initially, the Selectboard asked the town to postpone the vote – but townspeople, who’d left their homes on a frigid Tuesday evening, vetoed that idea, preferring to have their say that night. The reason to postpone the vote, Chairman Brian DeVriese said, was to give the Selectboard time to forge a preliminary Community Host Agreement with Carnegie Arch and identify how Heath would benefit from the business.

Cargenie Arch was school’s only bidder, offering $250,000 to cultivate, manufacture, and possibly sell cannabis onsite. Two Cargenie representatives attended the meeting, saying they would work with Heath to ensure the town’s needs were meet – while noting the project is time-sensitive and delays may cause them to look at other sites.

Opinions were mixed throughout the meeting, as residents wrestled with the notion of selling their former town school to a pot farm. Some were unsure about the pace of the sale, asking for more time to consider options. Many thought the $250,000 sale price was too low. Others questioned how a marijuana farm would impact Heath.

While residents expressed different views, town officials unilaterally supported the sale. Selectboard and Finance Committee members viewed it as a rare opportunity to generate revenue and lower taxes for Heath residents.

Fisher said Heath would benefit financially from selling the school building.

“It’s not going to be a wash – it’s going to be a benefit to the community,” Fisher said.

Finance Committee Chairman Ned Wolf said refraining from selling the school would squander a “special opportunity” and may force the town to make budget cuts in other areas to prevent taxes from increasing.

“We have the unusual opportunity of doing something about our taxes,” Wolf said.

Town Coordinator Kara Leistyna also supported the sale, saying she has watched officials grapple with the budget “year after year,” making fruitless attempts to lower Heath’s taxes.

“I have heard over the years at these town meetings so many people who don’t want to pay higher taxes,” Leistyna said. “You have this incredible opportunity for relief. The one time, in my time here in Heath.”

Planning Board Chairman Calvin Carr said his body would also have purview over Carnegie’s application.

“They still have to come to the Planning Board, and basically start the process all over again,” Carr said.

Carr compared keeping the former school to staying on the Titanic while it sinks.

“We have a lifeline that’s being thrown to us by the Board of Selectmen,” Carr said. “Now, you can stand on the Titanic saying well, I really liked that school, or I don’t like marijuana. That’s like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. We all go down together, or we all survive together.”

  Reach Grace Bird at
 gbird@recorder.com or
413-772-0261 ext. 280.


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