Couple crowdfunds for South Egremont cannabis shop set to open by year's end (copy)

Ari and Heidi Zorn have been approved to open a retail store, Devine Berkshires, at 71 Main St. in Egremont, which will prioritize local sourcing of cannabis products. “I think that the money raised for the town would be helpful, substantial,” Heidi Zorn said.

EGREMONT — Last week’s town election moved Egremont closer to banning several cannabis licenses, but that campaign has another hurdle to clear at the June 8 town meeting.

While the Planning Board has drafted a bylaw to regulate cannabis businesses, a vocal group of residents is advocating for the bans, which would go further than the bylaw and effectively prevent additional marijuana retail stores from opening in Egremont. It would also ban cultivator, product manufacturer, craft cooperative, delivery operator and transporter licenses in the town.

The six citizens petitions put forth by Egremont Together each received around 60 percent support at the election, but they still need majority approval at the town meeting to take effect.

Supporters — many of whom already played a role in shutting down two proposed businesses — say that banning licenses is the only surefire way to prevent outsiders from coming in to start cannabis businesses. Some in the town, however, say they feel that a regulatory bylaw from the Planning Board would provide enough protection against outsiders while leaving the door open for locals to start small businesses.

Marshall Bouton, who co-chairs Egremont Together, said that the group initially was willing to consider a bylaw, but opted to push for bans after observing the Planning Board’s process of drafting the bylaw, which Bouton felt was not restrictive enough.

“We feel strongly that our largely residential and rural character is something we want to protect,” Bouton said, citing possible odors, new buildings and environmental impacts as concerns related to cannabis businesses. “And who in the town needs this?”

There is widespread support in the town for one retail store started by local residents, Heidi and Ari Zorn, that has already been approved. Heidi Zorn said that she expects to be able to run Devine Berkshires, which will prioritize local sourcing of products, regardless of the outcome of the petitions.

While she said there are enough businesses in neighboring communities to source from, she believes it’s unwise to close the door on the possibility of other businesses in Egremont.

“I think that the money raised for the town would be helpful, substantial,” she said, adding that she would welcome a competing store. “If we say that we’re not going to allow other businesses here in Egremont, that’ll be a shame for the community and a shame for us.”

Those backing the citizens petitions don’t buy arguments that businesses would create revenue and jobs. The recent legalization of recreational marijuana in New York could take away sales from Egremont, Bouton said. And while host communities for cannabis businesses can assess a 3 percent excise sales tax and a 3 percent community impact fee, the fate of the community impact fee is uncertain after some businesses have challenged it.

It may still take a few years for legal cannabis sales to begin in New York as the state puts a licensing process in place.

Some also feel that the town doesn’t need additional revenue, noting that an increase in property values as more people buy homes in the town means that the tax base is already expanding.

“A lot of people here are really comfortable with things the way they are,” said Rick Ramsay, who co-chairs Egremont Together along with Bouton. “There’s not a desperate need for the revenue argument or the creating jobs argument. We feel the community is doing well.”

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{p dir=”ltr”}“Whatever marginal gain in employment there might be — underscore ‘might’ — it’s done at the risk of affecting the character of the town, it’s quietness, it’s environmental value and so forth,” Bouton added.

Nick Keene, a former member of the Planning Board, argued instead that the workforce has been depleted and there are “not a lot of workaday jobs for people to grab.”

The bylaw drafted by the board included what Keene felt to be “enough protection for the town and enough opportunity for small business people to be involved,” and he resigned from the board in part because he wished it had moved more quickly to bring the bylaw forward for residents to vote on it, he said.

“Right now the town is exposed because of the lack of a bylaw, and I guess my wish is that people had just voted on the bylaw,” Keene told The Eagle prior to the election. “Massachusetts has a highly regulated legal process, and I hope that we come to some sort of a conclusion because its seems like a lot of time is being spent on something that poses no menace.”

Zorn said that she understands the fear of outsiders starting businesses in Egremont, but she said that she believes a bylaw can provide sufficient regulation of the scale and scope of businesses — as well as a possible requirement that someone starting a business has been a resident for a certain number of years.

“I also don’t want a giant cultivation factory next to me that’s going to have bright lights and tents and cars,” Zorn said. “But if we have a bylaw, we have a lot of checks and balances, and it’s not like they can just come in and do whatever it is that they please. Shutting it down now would shut the door to any other residents who might want to get involved in the future.”

Ultimately, residents will decide whether to opt for bans or to opt for the bylaw.

Bouton said that for the June 8 town meeting, he hopes residents will get to vote on the six citizens petitions separately, rather than have them lumped into one vote.

Jared Kelly, who chairs the Planning Board, had said prior to the election that how people vote would inform how the board amends its bylaw, which as currently drafted would allow up to two retail licenses and would allow but regulate lower-level cultivation. While the board sent a letter to voters indicating that the board would prefer to regulate retail and cultivation, it did not take positions on the delivery operator, manufacturer or craft cooperative licenses.

Kelly was unavailable to comment Thursday or Friday on how the election results would affect the Planning Board’s work on the bylaw, which he previously said would be discussed at a public hearing after the town meeting.

The Planning Board is also holding a public hearing at 5 p.m. Tuesday on a proposed bylaw to exclude growing marijuana from the definition of agriculture.

According to the Planning Board website, Mary McGurn has taken the seat on the board formerly occupied by Keene.

Danny Jin, a Report for America corps member, is The Eagle’s Statehouse news reporter. He can be reached at djin@berkshireeagle.com, @djinreports on Twitter and 413-496-6221.

Statehouse Reporter

Danny Jin is the Eagle's Statehouse reporter. A graduate of Williams College, he previously interned at the Eagle and The Christian Science Monitor.