GREAT BARRINGTON — Candidates for Select Board stepped through a mine-laden field of questions from voters Tuesday, including what some think is a proliferation of legal marijuana retailers in town.
Voters also asked about the schools, the old fairgrounds and the former Housatonic School building, all of which have been the subject of simmering and sometimes fiery debate, and which could determine the outcome of next week’s town elections.
The polls will be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday at the fire station and the Housatonic Community Center.
Three candidates are running for two seats, including one currently held by Bill Cooke, who is not seeking reelection. Kate Burke, 35, is running for a second three-year term. Also on the ballot are Eric Gabriel, 44, and Garfield Reed, 70, Burke and Gabriel are town natives, and Reed is a longtime resident.
At the forum, sponsored by the Democratic and Republican Town Committees and Eileen Mooney’s NEWSletter, residents wanted to know how the candidates would vote going forward, but also touched on Burke’s voting track record with regard to cannabis retailers that have received permits from the town in the past year.
Resident Sharon Gregory grilled Burke about a permit for Calyx Berkshire Dispensary, which sits between two toy stores.
“I’m the grandmother of two little boys,” Gregory said.
Burke, who has expressed concerns during her term about a proliferation of the industry in town, said her vote there might have been one of inexperience at the time. She said it was her understanding then that the company legally could appeal a rejection, given the regulations.
“When I think of things that I have done on this board that ... I would take back,” said Burke, a mother of young children who works for the Berkshire Grown Farm to Food Access Program and is a former director of the Great Barrington Farmers Market.
Resident Nan Wile also reminded Burke that she had voted in November to approve Coastal Cultivars in the former McTeigue & McClelland Jewelers retail store.
Burke said she approved it because some of the company principals are people of color.
“It is owned by a gentleman of Indian descent and also run by a man who is Latinx, and that is important to me,” she said. Earlier, she told Gregory, “I think I’ve been a very strong voice on the board for my disinterest in supporting wealthy white individuals from opening marijuana shops.”
Upon the suggestion that she had voted in favor of Fulcrum Enterprises, a commercial greenhouse marijuana grower, Burke reminded residents that the company had withdrawn its permit application before the board had a chance to vote.
Reed, who sits on the Affordable Housing Trust board and is an associate Planning Board member, reminded voters that the Fulcrum plan prompted him to recuse himself from discussion on the Planning Board and join residents for protests against the company.
“We basically ran them out of town, and I’m proud to be a part of that,” he said.
Reed, who is semiretired, works at Plaza Package and volunteers for the American Cancer Society, also thinks pot stores should be only where kids aren’t.
Gabriel, an electrician with his own company, said he would have voted against Fulcrum because of the location, and what, in his experience looking at greenhouse plans, would have been a proliferation of lighting that would have made it look like “Gillette Stadium.”
As for legal pot, Gabriel said he doesn’t want shops “scattered all over downtown,” but he thinks the free market competition eventually will thin them out.
“I think you’re going to see the permits stopping,” said Gabriel, who lives in Housatonic.
Housatonic resident Michelle Loubert wanted to know where each stood on cannabis manufacturing in the village’s old mills, something she is opposed to. All three said that it isn’t a good idea.
As for the fast-deteriorating former Housatonic School building, moderator Ken Knox asked if candidates think the town should spend $30,000 to protect it while decision-making about its fate continues.
Gabriel, who attended the school and is on the Housatonic Improvement Committee, wants to see the building redeveloped, and supports paying to shore it up.
Reed noted that the improvement committee is listening to residents and is deliberating on the matter. He appeared to suggest that he would support the group’s decision, but did not answer to whether he would support protecting the building during the wait.
Burke also did not answer the question. She said residents are split between tearing it down and redeveloping it. Ultimately residents will determine the decision, she added, noting the long timeline.
All three candidates said they, in theory, support the merger being considered for the Berkshire Hills Regional School District and the neighboring Southern Berkshire Regional School District. Burke and Gabriel said they support an overhaul of Monument Mountain Regional High School, though Reed added that “we may not have the money to do everything.”
Reed also wants to see more invested in vocational education there.
All agreed that a possible purchase of the fairgrounds by a local couple is a hopeful development, as the town wants some entity to make the deteriorating property useful. Gabriel said he would like to see what plan emerges; Reed said he would like to see an industrial park there; and Burke, calling it a “sore subject,” said it is hard to develop because of extensive wetlands.
“I think it is worth entertaining any idea,” she said.