Lenox marijuana project on hold

Company cites work needed on former mill and waiting for state to write regulations

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LENOX — An approach to the town by a Boston company interested in locating a medical marijuana growing, cultivation and distribution facility at an abandoned mill in Lenox Dale appears to be in limbo.

Crane Healthcare Inc. officials appeared at a Select Board meeting and a community forum in the Lenox Dale Fire House in May to outline their potential plan for a production operation and dispensary at the Niagara Mill in an industrial zone near the village center.

But many residents voiced opposition to the plan at the May 30 forum, concerned that the site might be used for a retail marijuana shop in the future. Select Board members also expressed reservations at their meeting the following night.

Crane Healthcare CEO Michael Sung declined comment when reached at his Boston office this past week.

"It's been quiet the past few weeks, and the public is owed an explanation of what's going on," Selectman Edward Lane said the Select Board meeting on Wednesday.

When he last spoke with Sung several weeks ago, Lane said, "the indication from him was when they looked at that mill, it was challenging, a lot more than they thought it was going to be. That made them step back and say they didn't know if they could make money there."

The mill, out of operation for 11 years, requires extensive environmental cleanups before it can be used, with some informal estimates ranging as high as $4 million for a thorough rehabilitation.

Crane Healthcare leaders also had explored possible sites on Pittsfield Road (Routes 7 and 20), but none have emerged as likely locations for their proposed facility.

Town Manager Christopher Ketchen said he spoke on the phone Monday with Sung, who told him the project was on hold pending action by state lawmakers on laws and regulations covering recreational marijuana operations.

"I don't want to say they've up and said, `OK, we don't want to do it in Lenox,' but everything is on hold, it seems," Lane told his Select Board colleagues.

He acknowledged that the approach by Crane Healthcare helped inform the board about possible future approaches by companies seeking a marijuana facility in the town. At the May annual town meeting, voters approved restricting sites to the commercial zones along Pittsfield Road and to the small Lenox Dale industrial zone, which adjoins a residential area.

"The marijuana thing is here to stay, there's no getting around it," Lane said. "We're going to be faced with this again, so we've gained some knowledge in this area, so the next time at least we'll know what we can offer and what we can ask for."

Lane suggested a look at possible zoning changes that would allow a marijuana site on Pittsfield Road but bar it from anywhere in Lenox Dale, since the town's industrial zone is so near the village's residences "around the center of the community; that's where we got pushback from everybody."

"We've got to use some common sense," he said. "I have absolutely no problem with medical marijuana; it's the recreational [marijuana]" that presents an issue.

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"I think we have a legal obligation to provide an area," Selectmen Kenneth Fowler and Channing Gibson pointed out, citing the recent annual town meeting vote.

"There's a big difference having a recreational shop in a little village like Lenox Dale and the kind of traffic that would bring," said Fowler. "I'm in favor of medical in that area, because I think they could control it and keep it at a reasonable amount of traffic."

"But recreational changes the game, and that sort of impact on that village, I'd have a hard time going along with that," he added.

Fowler pointed to the Route 7 and 20 corridor, already heavily traveled, as a preferable site.

Gibson suggested consulting with Lenox Dale residents to find out what kind of economic development they would like to see, if any, in their close-knit community.

He also noted that several towns have been approached by medical marijuana purveyors, and cited Sheffield as one contacted by Crane Healthcare. Sheffield Town Administrator Rhonda LaBombard was not available to comment on a reported proposal by the company.

"I think every town around here is being approached by somebody," Gibson said

Crane Healthcare founder Satu Parikh and Sung, the CEO, had been seeking either a letter of support or of non-opposition from Town Manager Christopher Ketchen to make Lenox a "host community" for a medical marijuana operation. The Select Board would have to vote on whether to give Ketchen the go-ahead.

Without the letter, under state Department of Health regulations, the project could not go forward.

At the Lenox Dale forum, Parikh and Sung told residents that for competitive reasons, they could not rule out eventual recreational marijuana retail sales at their facility if other medical dispensaries across the state do the same. Parikh cautioned that if the town imposes too many restrictions, the business would not be viable.

At the annual town meeting in May, voters approved a moratorium on recreational marijuana through December 2018.

State lawmakers have been trying to reconcile a state Senate bill allowing voters to reject recreational marijuana stores through a ballot referendum with a House plan that leaves the decision in the hands of Select Boards.

In November 2012, Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot initiative legalizing the sale and use of marijuana by qualifying patients who have been diagnosed with a debilitating medical condition and have obtained a prescription. In Lenox, residents voted 1,833 to 1,034 in favor of the ballot question.

The Lenox vote was closer on the November 2016 ballot referendum on whether recreational marijuana for adults should be legalized. The result was 1,607 in favor, 1,414 opposed. Statewide, the initiative passed 1,745,945 to 1,513,304.

Reach correspondent Clarence Fanto at cfanto@yahoo.com or 413-637-2551.


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