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Our Opinion: North Adams spat over pot proposal raises issues and questions

North Adams is certainly not the only Berkshire community with heated debates on whether to welcome marijuana cultivation business. The heat was turned up quite a bit here, though, with Mayor Jennifer Macksey’s decision to sue the city’s Planning Board over its conditional approval of a special permit for New England Alchemy’s proposed operation on Ashland Street.

Soon afterward, New England Alchemy dropped its plans for North Adams. Yet this needlessly confrontational episode leaves some lingering questions about the typical approach to assessing potential marijuana businesses — in this city and across the Berkshires.

After Mayor Jennifer Macksey files a lawsuit, New England Alchemy says it won't open a cannabis business in North Adams

The mayor’s legal challenge echoed a petition against the Planning Board’s special permit issuance. That petition was signed by 30 residents who live nearby but do not abut the proposed Ashland Street parcel. It reflected worries often expressed in reaction to the relatively new phenomenon of marijuana cultivation facility proposals: neighborhood character, effects on property prices and, most perhaps most of all, odor concerns. While many marijuana growing operations have been proposed in more rural corners across the Berkshires, this one targeted an area of the city zoned for industrial purposes, though that’s apparently a distinction without a difference to the mayor and some residents of North Adams who harbored security and smell concerns for the plan.

Many themes of this conflict reverberate beyond North Adams as questions that still require better answers amid Massachusetts’ adjustment to the nascent retail pot industry. Unlike other impacts businesses can have on their immediate surroundings — waste runoff, noise, light — objectively measuring odor is somewhere between difficult and impossible. This is not to say that odor might not be a real concern for those who live near marijuana facilities (or other businesses). But while we can measure refuse amounts or decibel levels, what would be the equivalent for judging odor levels, their residual effects and the efficacy of mitigation efforts? If this is going to be a consideration that alone might determine whether a prospective business is turned away from a municipality, shouldn’t we have a decent measurement method? And even if an objective method were agreed upon, will there be parity in application to other potentially smelly businesses — fertilizer-heavy farms in rural corners or certain factories in industrial zones — or are odor concerns only a cudgel to be used reflexively against pot-growing operations?

Further, is there an unwarranted bias against marijuana business proposals, particularly in communities that simultaneously claim to be seeking economic growth and revitalization? We aren’t singling out North Adams; Eagle news coverage has highlighted similar controversies elsewhere, such as the hue and cry in Becket over a planned growing operation there. Massachusetts might have a head start on some of its neighbors in the retail marijuana sector, but that won’t last forever — especially here in Western Massachusetts, where we’re flanked by three states that have followed our suit in legalizing marijuana and will likely soon catch up. Does the adamant and seemingly automatic opposition that often crops up against these sorts of proposals undermine opportunities to seize this fleeting advantage, even in communities desperately trying to attract new businesses and expand the tax base such as North Adams?

Beyond these bigger themes, though, this unique escalation raises specific worries about the state of governance in North Adams. Issuing special permits is a discretionary act delegated to the Planning Board, not the mayor’s office. Mayor Macksey’s lawsuit clearly undermined that authority to give her office some undue discretion in the decision.

It’s worrisome enough that the city’s executive would try to end-run her fellow officials over a decision she doesn’t like that is nevertheless delegated to them and not her. Taking it to court also meant that taxpayers potentially were on the hook for one branch of city government suing another. The Boston-based firm the city uses as its solicitor, KP Law, filed the mayor’s appeal, but Planning Board members would have needed their own legal representation, and up until New England Alchemy withdrew its proposal it was unclear who and how expensive that would have been.

Regardless of how the mayor felt about the panel’s decision, this move sent the wrong signals to nearly all community stakeholders. “I think it sends a chilling message to other boards, commissions and even the greater business community,” Lisa Blackmer, a North Adams Planning Board member and City Council president, told The Eagle. We agree, and we also believe it runs counter to the mission that we praised Mayor Macksey for expressing after winning election: a unifying effort to put what’s best for city governance over jockeying for power and influence by any one official or faction.

Now, a rift is opened between city officials who should be working together, while a prospective business that initially saw North Adams as a good home has been persuaded to look elsewhere. It’s only the most recent example of needlessly turning up the temperature in local debates over marijuana cultivation facilities — and we fear it won’t be the county’s last.

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