SHEFFIELD — Voters rejected a marijuana moratorium and denied the Select Board the authority to negotiate taxes with a solar power developer at Monday night's annual town meeting.
The marijuana moratorium was resoundingly defeated. The measure needed a two-thirds majority, or 120 votes, to pass, but received 68. There were 74 votes against the moratorium; 38 people abstained.
"This would just slow business down in Sheffield," said Lawrence Davis-Hollander, of Ashley Falls Road. "Worst-case scenario is there's a retail shop in the center of Sheffield."
Meanwhile, voters objected to the length of the tax agreement — 20 years — and lack of information available about the solar power question.
"This is worth millions to the town," said Jeffrey Neil, of Hewins Street. "And for 20 years, it's not going to be put before the town again?"
Sheffield voters — 180 turned out — made decisions on the 26 articles presented and passed most of them unanimously. Measures voters approved include: next year's $10.45 million town operating budget, $10,000 for highway plows, $25,000 for technology hardware and software to upgrade Town Hall, $47,500 for new fire truck equipment, $150,000 to put a new roof on the Covered Bridge, $25,000 to replace guardrails, and $20,000 to repair dry fire hydrants.
Much of the voting — the first 22 measures — was done in silence with no debate from the audience or coming from the Select Board or Finance Committee. Only solar power and marijuana were debated.
"Oh, thank goodness," said Moderator William Tighe, when Pat Levine, of East Main Street, was the first to address the warrant from the audience.
A marijuana moratorium that would have put a pause on cannabis businesses setting up shop in Sheffield before Dec. 31 was put on the warrant by citizen petition. Rene Wood, who is running for the Select Board against incumbent Andrew Petersen in the May 14 town election, spearheaded the initiative. She said voters should approve the moratorium to give the town time to establish zoning bylaws that would govern issues such as location of marijuana businesses, hours and number of entities.
"With no bylaw and no moratorium in place, we have no way to regulate this except by the current zoning bylaws. That means if a [marijuana] retailer is within the business zones, by-right, he can do that," she said."We need to have the conversation as a community about what we want to support."
Some voters objected to the moratorium noting that waiting to allow the new marijuana industry to set up shop in Sheffield could cause the town to lose out on the profits it is expected to bring communities with associated retailers, manufacturers or farmers.
Voters also expressed concern that a moratorium could give Berkshire WelCo, which has a host agreement with Sheffield, an unfair advantage over other businesses. An attorney with Kopelman & Paige who was present at the meeting as town counsel, said moratoriums are not usually applied retroactively, but the state's marijuana rules are new and still being tested.
A seemingly routine request that would allow the Select Board to negotiate a contract for taxes for the town took a turn as resident Jeffrey Neil asked questions about the nature of the deal with a new solar facility, Park Avenue Solar Solutions, and how much money Sheffield could stand to gain.
Neil, a private equity investor, said the profits developers make off solar projects like Park Avenue are huge and the town should get a piece of that money.
"It's not appropriate for the developer to make such profits off the backs of the townspeople," he said noting that a 20-year tax contract is a "developer's dream."
Select Board Chairman David Smith said the town regularly enters into contracts with vendors and is capable of doing so with Park Avenue to the benefit of the town.
Town Administrator Rhonda LaBombard said Sheffield can base tax assessments on the value of the land, buildings and personal property on it. The project is not finished so it is unclear at this time what a tax contract with Park Avenue would look like. She said the tax rate in the contract would increase over the 20 years of its term.
"It just provides predictability," LaBombard said. "They know and we know what we're getting."
Voters did not approve the Select Board the authority to negotiate with Park Avenue on taxes with just a handful of residents supporting the board. Since the measure failed, Park Avenue's taxes will be compiled annually.
Kristin Palpini can be reached at email@example.com, @kristinpalpini on Twitter, 413-629-4621.