Who's in, out on municipal front over 2018 marijuana sales

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WILLIAMSTOWN — While communities across Berkshire County are delaying the advent of marijuana businesses, Williamstown is getting ready for recreational sales on day one.

That is, provided the town doesn't ban them.

Williamstown recently approved zoning bylaws that regulate where pot shops could open, a move that put the town ahead of the pack in welcoming the recreational marijuana industry to Massachusetts.

Many towns have not even started this work, opting to buy time through moratoriums.

In Berkshire County, six communities have instituted temporary bans on recreational marijuana sales: Dalton, Egremont, Hinsdale, Lee, Lenox and West Stockbridge.

At least another eight communities' Planning and/or Select boards are discussing the possibility of a moratorium: Becket, Cheshire, Great Barrington, Lanesborough, North Adams, Pittsfield, Richmond and Sandisfield.

In Alford, Stockbridge and Tyringham, moratoriums have not been discussed by town officials.

"We don't need one here in Mount Washington, I believe, because we don't really have businesses, per se, so we don't have to regulate that," said Town Clerk and Select Board member Gail Garrett.

Flip-flop?

Even though Williamstown is looking like a pro-marijuana community, that could change if residents decide to ban recreational weed sales — which is something that could happen, Select Board Chairman Hugh Daley noted. When voters approved recreational marijuana for Massachusetts in 2016, part of the law allowed for towns to ban sales. It allows room for towns to distinguish between voting to legalize the use and possession of marijuana and voting to have pot shops in town.

"We're about economic development," Daley said. "This could be a new, probably successful, business. Why stand in the way of that? But I don't know, it's a thorny question — do people really want it here?"

Williamstown, like so many other communities in Berkshire County and Massachusetts, is trying to set standards for marijuana businesses even as the state is making up its own regulations.

Few communities have acted like Williamstown and set out to create their own recreational marijuana bylaws before the state delivers its draft guidance this month. Locally, Adams and Clarksburg have written new zoning bylaws but are in the process of getting them approved.

Daley said Williamstown couldn't afford to wait for the Cannabis Control Commission to come out with its regulations, because marijuana business owners can begin applying for licenses April 1.

"If we didn't have this by April 1, then stores could open anywhere in town, so it was a good move to at least get the zoning in place," Daley said.

Daley is right, but a lot of communities are getting around the deadline by passing yearlong moratoriums on any new recreational marijuana business coming to town.

Meanwhile, people with hopes of being part of the marijuana business are on hold. Most of the recreational marijuana moratoriums approved in the county expire Dec. 31, 2018.

"In a nutshell, what they're doing to the industry is holding up everything," said Peter Bernard, director of the Massachusetts Advocacy Growing Council, a pro-weed business group. "The people who voted yes don't necessarily want it in their towns.

"It's making people feel uncertain, they're not sure when they can set up and get going," he said. "I get why towns want to wait to see what the regulations are so they can figure out what they do and do not want to allow — I'm not happy about it, but I get it. But a ban, to me, is just ignorant."

Dalton Town Manager Kenneth Walto said he wouldn't mind getting direction from the Cannabis Control Commission.

"We're hoping to have a bylaw ready for Town Meeting in May," Walto said.

Meanwhile, three towns are having much different conversations around weed and are preparing for marijuana.

Adams, Clarksburg and Williamstown have, or are working on, zoning and other bylaws governing recreational marijuana sales.

Clarksburg has new zoning bylaws drafted that might go before voters this month, said Town Administrator Carl McKinney.

"We're a small town; if this passes, this is new growth potential," McKinney said. "We need to embrace smart growth."

Key questions

There are several main questions each community has to answer about recreational marijuana, said Berkshire Regional Planning Commission Assistant Director Thomas Matuszko, who gave a talk in November about how municipalities can prepare for the new law.

The questions are:

- Do residents want to ban any or all marijuana establishments outright?

- If marijuana is coming to town, how can a community control it through zoning?

- Is the answer to place the businesses in specific areas of the town?

- How can communities use bylaws to restrict things like hours of operation and number of pot shop licenses per town?

- Does a community want to impose a local marijuana sales tax?

Communities that do not make changes in response to the state's new marijuana laws will regulate marijuana under existing zoning bylaws.

"Establishments selling marijuana, pot shops, sometimes those would be treated similarly to a retail store under zoning," Matuszko said. "Towns need to be prepared."

Kristin Palpini can be reached at kpalpini@berkshireeagle.com and @kristinpalpini on Twitter.


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