GREAT BARRINGTON — Blazing a new trail, the town has become the first in Berkshire County — and the third in the U.S. — to ban the sale of small, single-use water bottles.
Applause ripped through the Monument Mountain Regional High School auditorium Monday after voters at annual town meeting approved the ban for the bottles, 1 liter or smaller, following the lead of Massachusetts towns Concord and Sudbury.
Amid a rising tide of concern about the use of plastic containers, bans on plastic water bottles have been imposed at 90 colleges and universities, as well as the Houston Zoo, among other locations. San Francisco has a ban that is limited to city property. In Great Barrington, the ban is restricted to nonsparkling, unflavored drinking water in single-serve containers, and will be effective Jan 1.
The bottle ban decision followed votes that restored money to the library and town parks, approved the ever-climbing school budget, and tightened the leash on soon-to-arrive marijuana businesses.
About 400 voters stuck it out for a nearly four-hour meeting in which they approved the town's $11.3 million operating budget, $3 million capital budget, and $16.2 million for the Berkshire Hills Regional School District. There were a few complaints about school choice, and annual rising costs imposed by the state due to higher student headcounts and increased local wealth. The town's share of school costs rose by $826,000, a 5.4 percent increase from last year.
An impassioned speech by three Monument Mountain Regional High School students led the assault on the plastic bottles, casually sipped on and disposed of, and that, according to scientists, are fouling the sea, packing it with chemicals, and harming sea life in a cycle that has climbed the food chain.
But a ban would also hurt local businesses that sell it, said resident Andy Moro. He advised a different battle plan for an attack on plastics.
"We should go after our state legislators for 100 percent recycling," he said, referring to recycling rates estimated in 2016 by the U.S. Environmental Agency to be as low as 9.5 percent.
The Environment Committee of the Berkshire Women's Action Group instigated the ban with exceptions for emergencies and a plan to install water stations around town. The group waged a campaign since last fall, saying bottling companies are often selling municipal water that is not necessarily as safe as local tap water.
The group lamented the profit-driven, $16 billion a year industry that has brainwashed the public into thinking it's healthy to tote the 34-ounce bottles everywhere, and drag cases into meetings and workshops nationwide.
"We've been sold a bill of goods by Nestle and Coca Cola," resident Dale Abrams said of the bottling giants, noting they sell what is really municipal water at jacked up prices. "All of us in this room grew up without the need for plastic water bottles."
School budget woes
Select Board member Daniel Bailly advised voters to tank the school budget and send a message to the state that its funding formula is unfair, as is the formula it uses to calculate what each town should pay. Because it sends more students to the schools, the town, for instance, pays 73 percent of school costs among three towns that include Stockbridge and West Stockbridge. Great Barrington pays about half the district's total budget.
Resident Patrick Fennell said school funding inequity would make it harder for families — he learned from district Superintendent Peter Dillon that more than 40 percent of elementary students have reduced cost and free lunches.
Select Board Chairman Sean Stanton said the formula combined with rising school budgets are "crushing Great Barrington." He hailed resident Chip Elitzer as a knight riding into the state's legislative forest in an attempt to sway lawmakers toward statewide reform.
"It's a long road," he said. "But there is some hope on the horizon."
Despite another year of school budget despair, the budget sailed through, since residents know the children have to go to school every morning, and know the struggles of schools in a rural region.
Suzanne Fowle, a biologist who teaches at Berkshire Community College, said that her son is using a fourth edition of biology textbook at Monument High, while at BCC, her students are using the eighth edition of the same book. She also said her daughter's chemistry class was unable to safely perform certain labs because the science room is dated.
While school officials recently saved proposed cuts to making these laboratory upgrades, Fowle said voters would have to shoulder educational burdens if government isn't going to help.
"I don't see why our children and teachers should pay the price for this complex issue," she said, speaking in favor of approving the town's share of the school budget.
A round of applause followed the restoration of about $11,000 to the Great Barrington Libraries budget, after pleas to maintain what is becoming an essential service for the financially strapped.
"We are a haven for people who do not have access to books," said Amanda DiGiorgis, director of both the Mason and Ramsdell libraries. "We are a haven for people who don't have access to the internet."
Resident David Rosenberg said he was "shocked" by the proposed cuts, given the robust library system and it critical presence in town, particularly for children.
"Not everyone has Netflix," he said. "Not everyone has an iPad."
While current libraries Trustee Kathy Plungis, speaking personally, advocated for the cuts to keep taxes in check, former libraries Trustee and Select Board candidate Holly Hamer moved to push the library budget back up to $548,375.
Hamer said the increase would tack on less than $2 per year for those who own a median priced home.
"A paperback book these days costs $15 ... is it really worth it?" she said of the cuts.
After Chairwoman Karen Smith of the Parks and Recreation Department spoke up, the same went for that department's annual $86,000 budget, as it faced about $10,000 in cuts that would have wiped out programming for young people at the skate park, the Lake Mansfield beach and the gazebo at Town Hall.
But after all this, resident Marybeth Merritt said while she wants "the best for everybody, we can't really afford everything. I don't think it's fair."
It's been the subject of bickering in town hall for months: whether the Select Board or the Planning Board be the authority that grants special permits to the soon-to-arrive marijuana businesses.
A vote of 182-101 decided the issue in favor of the Select Board.
With the July 1 legalization date looming for recreational use and production, the town Planning Board worked late nights to put laws in place to control where and when businesses can operate.
But despite some disagreements, both boards agreed that the town needed more than just the state's regulations, which would not be restrictive enough.
"We must approve something or we lose all local control," said Planning Board member Jack Musgrove.
The Select Board tacked on an amendment that said all cultivation plans would require a special permit, not just some.
Planning Board member Jonathan Hankin said the more expensive and uncertain special permit process could deter the industry.
The Select Board has taken a more conservative approach in not wanting to allow the industry, by-right, to set up shop anywhere other shops can go.
"If you wanted to have a daycare in the industrial zone you need a special permit from the Select Board," Bailly said. "I think a day care has less impact on a community than a marijuana facility does."
Stanton said the board, to start, doesn't want by-right cultivation in any zone. "We can loosen the reins later," he said.
This version passed — marijuana shops will also need a special permit from the board in the two business zones and industrial area where it is allowed. Also, any cultivation facility can only operate on land 5 acres or more if it is in an agricultural/residential zone.
The bylaws also won't allow indoor cultivation buildings 10,000 square feet or more in these residential zones where homes and farms mix.
Voters also agreed that retail marijuana sales should be taxed at 3 percent.
Heather Bellow can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.