Lenox Planning Board tees up 3 options on retail pot policy for residents

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LENOX — On the eve of a public hearing on proposed zoning rules for adult-use recreational marijuana businesses, the Planning Board is sifting through guidance from the Select Board on how to present potential bylaws to voters at a special town meeting this fall.

The planners will present a three-pronged proposal to residents at the legally required public hearing at 6 p.m. Wednesday in the Town Hall auditorium.

- Plan A: The board's recommendation would allow retail marijuana shops only in the commercial districts along Route 7/20 south of the Pittsfield city line. Cultivation and processing of marijuana products could take place in the same commercial districts as well as the Lenox Dale industrial zone. A two-thirds vote at the Nov. 1 town meeting is required for approval.

- Plan B: If the board proposal fails, voters would be asked whether they want a total prohibition on recreational adult marijuana businesses throughout the town. (The cultivation, processing, and sale of medicinal marijuana would still be allowed.) A two-thirds majority also would be required followed by a special ballot vote open to all residents on a date to be scheduled. At the November 2016 general election, town voters approved legalization of marijuana by 1,607 to 1,414 (53.2 percent to 46.8 percent).

- Plan C: As a fallback and stopgap, if neither Plan A nor Plan B gains the necessary two-thirds approval, town meeting voters would be asked to approve a six-month extension of the existing Lenox moratorium on marijuana businesses, through June 30, 2019. Without an extension, if no bylaw has been approved, recreational pot shops could open anywhere in town where other retail businesses are allowed.

At last week's Select Board meeting, Lee-Lenox Chief Administrative Officer Christopher Ketchen pointed out that even if the plan B total townwide ban on commercial marijuana activities passes, a moratorium extension still is needed in order for time to schedule the special election ballot vote, and to protect the town if the election voters defeat the total ban.

In that case, the regular annual town meeting in May would offer another chance to present proposals that could find favor with voters.

Several selectmen expressed qualms about the multiple options that town voters may confront at the Nov. 1 town meeting.

"I think the prohibition shouldn't be part of the Planning Board's mission," said Edward Lane. Acknowledging that he voted against legalizing marijuana in 2016, he emphasized that "it got voted in, plain and simple. Now, we've got to deal with it, that's the way it works. I feel it's wrong to second-guess what the voters said first time around."

Select Board Chairman Kenneth Fowler, supporting Lane's point, said that he finds it "difficult to grasp the idea of an elected body responding to minority opinion when the majority said yes. This is a difficult process, there's a lot of hot opinion about this, division is deep, but we've made some progress here."

Planning Board member Kameron Spaulding responded that the board also opposes a total ban, but the inclusion of a proposal for a prohibition "was simply to accommodate some people who are out there. If it was up to us totally, we would be saying, 'This is our zoning bylaw, and if you don't like it, you can amend it on the floor or fail it.'" A total ban proposal would not be endorsed by the board, he added.

Across the state, nearly 90 towns and cities out of 351 have enacted an outright ban on recreational marijuana shops, including two in Berkshire County, Lanesborough and Mount Washington.

Selectman David Roche, citing those numbers, supported offering Lenox voters an opportunity to approve a total ban "especially since it's had some citizens' support. Many communities have approved marijuana in their vote, but elected to ban it as far as sales go."

The majority of town voters "felt they could take it out of the hands of criminals, and they weren't voting at the time to allow marijuana to be purchased in Lenox," Roche added.

He also noted that since both Lee and Pittsfield have approved recreational pot shops, "I'm not depriving anybody of the ability to purchase the items."

"I don't think necessarily that it's up to us to tell you whether to present two or three options; that's up to you folks," said Selectman Neal Maxymillian. "Now the language has been simplified, it's much clearer, and I appreciate the effort to get there. I'm fine with what you've presented here."

Land Use Director and Town Planner Gwen Miller explained that any town can limit the number of retail marijuana establishments and nonretail establishments. In Lenox, retail establishments may be capped to less than 20 percent of package store liquor licenses by a two-thirds town meeting vote and a ballot vote.

Currently, Lenox has five all-alcohol package store licenses and two wine-and-malt licenses.

The town can also opt to limit the number of retail establishments to more than 20 percent of the package store liquor licenses.

She pointed out that any municipality can cap the number of nonretail marijuana establishments, but the minimum has to be one. Lee, for instance, chose a cap of 14, allowing for two of each type of nonretail marijuana businesses.

Selectman Warren Archey praised Miller and Kueber, the Planning Board chairwoman, for their "exhaustive consideration of these issues. I'm very impressed with the options we have, and I think voters will appreciate the fact we can go in a number of different directions."

"It is wholly possible, if you all think it's the best thing to do, to come to town meeting Nov. 1 with just one article, the Planning Board's proposal, and an extension of the moratorium," said Planning Board Chairwoman Pam Kueber.

Wednesday's public hearing also will review the Planning Board's zoning bylaw proposal to allow up to two rooms in single-family homes to be rented short-term on Airbnb and other sites for less than 30 days at a time, year-round, with no maximum on the total number of days. The proposal includes a similar plan for rentals of entire homes, but only between Memorial Day and Columbus Day, with weekends only after Labor Day.

A general bylaw would require short-term rental hosts of entire dwellings to undergo health and safety inspections, with enforcement beginning next May 1, and to register their homes, currently estimated at about 120 properties, with the town.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.

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