Jon Piasecki wants to grow his business — and potentially 80,000 square feet of cannabis.
But in a battle that is playing out more and more in communities around the Berkshires, he’s coming up against opposition from community members who are concerned about their neighborhood going to pot.
Piasecki, a landscape designer who operates Wiseacre Farm, a 5,000-square-foot cannabis farm in West Stockbridge, is making his second attempt to increase his yield in the sprawling town of Sheffield. He was denied a permit in March to grow 95,000 square feet of crops off Polikoff Road after sustained opposition by abutters.
The board also denied another permit to another grower for a farm on the same road.
This time, he has a lease option for an 18-acre parcel near Rannapo and Bull Hill roads in Ashley Falls, land that he said was a cornfield for about 50 years.
Piasecki, who says he is working to develop strains of cannabis suited to the New England climate, recently negotiated a host community agreement with the town Select Board. In the next two weeks, both the Ashley Falls Conservation Commission and Historic District Commission will review the plans, since the parcel sits in the historic zoning overlay.
Piasecki says that at initial informational meetings his plan was already met with hostility, and he is fully expecting more pushback. Residents say pot farms should go in more commercial areas, even if they technically are allowed in the rural district.
“It just boils down to a zoning story,” said Sally MacKenzie, the nearest abutter. MacKenzie owns a circa-1757 Colonial that belonged to the daughter of American Revolutionary War Col. John Ashley, and bought land across the street to preserve it.
“We’re not anti-pot,” she said, “but it needs to be put in the right places in each community in Berkshire County.”
It is a sentiment echoing around the county as farmers try to cultivate cannabis for commercial wholesale, prompting resistance from residents concerned about odor, security and property values.
Just last month, Sandisfield approved a large commercial cannabis cultivation facility, but not without a pitched battle over the plan by Sama Productions, which abandoned earlier plans for a grow operation in Great Barrington amid a similar outcry by neighbors.
But, with a tight margin, Sandisfield voters on Saturday rejected a marijuana bylaw that would restrict the industry, and prohibit larger farms like Sama’s. Voters also said no to an outright industry ban.
Egremont, however, appears to be heading toward a ban on cultivation, manufacturing and more than two retail stores, after voters last week answered cannabis ballot questions at town elections. Voters there still will have to approve the measures at annual town meeting next month, and consider a bylaw that would allow smaller pot farms.
“Everyone is facing the same problem,” Piasecki said, venting frustration at what he called a de facto ban. “The laws tend to favor the indoor grow. As hard as it is to get through [state] licensing, it’s becoming seemingly impossible to get through local boards.”
Mark Trocchi, who owns the land Piasecki wants to lease, said in a letter of support that he has been turning down purchase offers for years that included buyers who wanted to build a home or a solar farm.
“On average over the years we have turned down approximately 1.5 offers per year to buy, lease or develop this land, usually to builders,” he wrote.
Piasecki’s farm would be screened with plants to hide it, have an odor-control system, and prefabricated buildings that include an office, a processing facility, a well house, irrigation and tool sheds.
Drawings show the nearest abutters 650 to 750 feet away and through the woods. But, he says, it isn’t only abutters who are opposed.
“There is pressure against it even from a mile away, from people who jog on the road,” he said. “They’re just filled with terror.”