Lenox wrestles with simplifying zoning rules for retail pot stores

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LENOX — Keep it simple.

That's the firm message from Select Board members to the Planning Board for its ongoing efforts to win voter approval for adult-use recreational marijuana businesses in limited sections of town.

At their recent meeting, selectmen questioned the complexity of the planners' proposed zoning changes to allow retail marijuana stores by right in the major commercial districts on Pittsfield Road and nonretail facilities in those districts, as well as in the small industrial zone in Lenox Dale.

Presenting the Planning Board's recommended articles for special town meeting voters to consider this fall, Chairwoman Pam Kueber acknowledged that the discussion at the Aug. 22 meeting would get "a little bit complicated."

The board's proposals, if adopted by town meeting voters Nov. 1 by the required two-thirds margins, would allow seven types of marijuana facilities in various zones, including retail pot shops and cultivation operations, "where legally, they make the most sense from a land-use perspective," she said.

Retail marijuana businesses must create a highly controlled and regulated environment for the adult purchase of cannabis products for at-home use only, Kueber said, since the state has yet to allow "marijuana cafes" or other social settings for the consumption of pot.

Last month, the Planning Board approved 4-0 a recommendation that marijuana facilities be allowed only in the commercial districts along Route 7/20 between the downtown area and the Pittsfield border. If that proposal fails to win two-thirds approval, the board is offering voters a total townwide ban.

And, if that's defeated, a six-month extension of the current moratorium until June 30 would be considered by voters.

Examining the board's documents, Selectman Neal Maxymillian pointed out that there are six articles the Planning Board has crafted for voters.

"I really appreciate the hard work you've done on this," he told Kueber. "But it feels more complicated to me than it needs to be."

Maxymillian asserted that "it's for you guys to decide whether we go for prohibition or for zoning it [marijuana] somewhere, not to put your fingers up in the air to see what the town wants, but for you to decide."

In order to keep it simple, he advocated just two recommended town meeting articles — permission in the commercial zones or, if that's rejected, a six-month moratorium extension "while we go back to the drawing board."

If the zoned permission goes down, he added, "then we have a backup moratorium extension to protect the town," Maxymillian said. "I'd keep it that simple."

If there's no zoning and no moratorium after Dec. 31, pot shops could open anywhere where retail business is allowed.

Doubling down on his suggestion for simplification and clarification, Maxymillian said he is "not comfortable that people are going to be able to navigate their decision with the language that's in front of us."

Selectman Edward Lane agreed, calling for a streamlined option reflecting "what the Planning Board really and truly wants." If it fails, he added, he advocated stepping back to a "Plan B" while the temporary ban on adult-use marijuana businesses remains in place until next summer.

Kueber cited some people in town who favor a total ban on those businesses, resulting in the board's decision to offer an article reflecting that view in case the proposed zoning permissions fail at the special town meeting.

"I'd have a hard time telling those people we won't do this," she said.

There's a further complication. Because Lenox voters supported legalization of marijuana in November 2016 — by a 52-48 percent margin — a new vote would be required at this year's Nov. 6 election if residents support a total ban at the special town meeting.

But a multi-pronged approach for town meeting voters to decide, including zoned permission, a total ban or a six-month delay, won support from Selectman David Roche.

Kueber agreed that there are a lot of "if, then" moving parts to the zoning proposals. requiring a flow chart to understand all the options. "It's a tough one," she said.

She also noted that there is no proposed cap on the number of marijuana businesses that could be allowed if voters approve the recommended zoning bylaw.

"It looks like you could have seven different types of facilities in the commercial districts," Select Board Chairman Kenneth Fowler said. "It sounds like a lot."

Besides retail shops, the list of businesses could include a marijuana cultivator, independent testing laboratory, marijuana product manufacturer, research facility, a craft marijuana cooperative and a marijuana transporter.

Kueber met with Land Use Director and Town Planner Gwen Miller on Thursday to discuss the Select Board's feedback and work on possible revisions to address their concerns. Kueber will present the results of that discussion at the next selectmen meeting, at 7 p.m. Wednesday in Town Hall.

A public hearing on the zoning proposals, including any further revisions to the marijuana bylaw articles, as well as rules on short-term Airbnb rentals, is set for the Planning Board's next meeting, at 6 p.m. Sept. 12.

The hearing also will include the board's recommendations to encourage more multifamily and lower-cost housing opportunities for the town in areas where they are now prohibited.

Proposed zoning changes include construction of multifamily housing by right in the town's mixed-use commercial districts, including the downtown village and a small portion of Lenox Dale. If developers can't meet all requirements for a by-right project, they could apply to the zoning board for a special permit.

The Planning Board also is recommending that multifamily housing construction be allowed by special permit in the commercial strip along Route 7/20 (Pittsfield Road) just south of the Pittsfield city line.

In addition, the board is proposing the removal of minimum-size requirements for apartments or other dwellings, currently 600 or 700 square feet. Instead, the building code would determine those regulations.

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

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