Officials work to find right weed bylaw

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LENOX — Town leaders are doubling down on efforts to craft an adult-use marijuana zoning bylaw that will win voter support.

The Select Board and Planning Board are pledging to work together to weave a plan that would be approved by more than the required two-thirds majority at the next town meeting.

A proposal to restrict retail and other marijuana businesses to the Pittsfield Road (Route 7/20) commercial zones north of downtown failed by five votes at last November's special town meeting, possibly because it would have allowed industrial pot businesses in the vacant mills of the Lenox Dale village, which is partially zoned for industrial uses.

In the works now is a simplified and more restrictive law that could rule out the tight-knit village from any pot-related industry.

The Planning Board is still debating the best course of action to achieve a successful outcome at the May 2 annual town meeting.

At a joint meeting of Select Board and Planning Board members this week, there was general agreement that a revised marijuana bylaw needs support from the selectmen in order to gain traction with voters. A potential compromise could be a provision to allow marijuana processing in the Lenox Dale industrial zone, but only by a special permit from the zoning board.

The Planning Board will explore that possibility and other ideas at its next meeting set for 6 p.m. Jan 22 in the Lenox Dale fire station.

"Critical to moving forward and getting this to a successful vote, we wanted to reach out to Select Board members to pick your brains and take advantage of your knowledge and expertise from talking to townspeople," said Pam Kueber, chairman of the Planning Board. "We'd like to bring the same or a similar bylaw forward, with potential tweaks and amendments. We felt we could do a better job communicating."

She also acknowledged that "we are political, we have to come up with well-founded, thoughtful policy, but it's got to pass by a two-thirds vote, which is always a high hurdle."

Following the close-call defeat last November, the town extended its moratorium on marijuana enterprises through June 30, now the final deadline to avoid a free-for-all. If there's no town bylaw in place after that date, retail pot shops could open anywhere in town where retail activity is allowed, and the same would apply to industrial marijuana growing, cultivation and processing businesses.

"We're up against a hard deadline," said Selectman Neal Maxymillian. "The more important guiding principle now is, 'What do we do to succeed?' " He suggested that it would be expedient to exclude Lenox Dale from marijuana-related enterprises.

He stressed that enhanced presentation and communication are essential to winning over voters. Maxymillian cited feedback indicating that keeping Lenox Dale out of any permitted marijuana establishments would increase chances for a successful result.

Confining any and all marijuana activity to the north Lenox commercial zones may tip the balance, he suggested.

Selectman Edward Lane, a Lenox Dale resident, pointed out that townspeople have suggested that "we should keep it as simple as humanly and legally possible. I feel Lenox Dale should be left out of it, because if you try to put anything there, it's going to be a problem, they're going to feel like you're just trying to dump a grow facility on us."

Lane also suggested a basic bylaw allowing just one or two retail shops in the commercial strip near the Pittsfield border, no growing facilities, "and let it go at that."

"What does having grow facilities get us?" he asked. "It's not going to make the town any better or worse. People aren't going to move here because we have a grow facility and a craft marijuana place, that's not going to make the town a better place to be."

He proposed doing "the bare minimum that we have to do by the law, and tell the folks at town meeting that if we don't do it, we're in trouble."

But Planning Board member Tom Delasco, acknowledging his own "very strong feelings," declared that "Lenox Dale is and always was the industrial part of town, where our industrial zone is. Marijuana production facilities are an industrial process; that's where it belongs, or not at all."

Kameron Spaulding, also on the Planning Board, pushed for allowing growing, cultivation, research and processing enterprises anywhere in town where industrial activity is permitted because marijuana is "a clean industry with jobs that pay $60,000 or $70,000 more than double what the median income is in Lenox."

"Would you rather have a tar pit next to you or a facility that by law can't have an ounce of smell, light, anything come out of it," he said. "You'd never know what's grown in there. We have this fear of what it is, but these are high-paying, low impact and very green jobs." Spaulding is also a Lenox Dale resident.

Lane, acknowledging that "it's not the worst industry you could have by any stretch of the imagination," asked "why take the chance that it's going to cause a problem and jeopardize actually getting a bylaw passed."

"If we're simply here to try to write bylaws that we think are going to get passed," Spaulding said, "I'm not willing to put my time into that, and I don't think a lot of people would."

On the November 2016 ballot, by 53.2 to 46.8 percent Lenox was among the vast majority of communities statewide that voted to legalize adult recreational use of marijuana by a very similar margin. Out of 351 cities and towns statewide, 91 voted against legalization, and most of them have enacted permanent bans.

Maxymillian emphasized that the pros and cons of marijuana are not up for debate. "This is a discussion about zoning, because if we do not do something, after the moratorium expires in June, we would have no control of it," he said.

He advocated language and wording "so people understand very clearly what they're voting on" at the town meeting. "We can just present that very simple message and have success that way."

Maxymillian pointed out that townspeople have told him that if retail marijuana is confined to the commercial zones on Pittsfield Road by right, along with other manufacturing facilities, it's no problem. But he suggested that any potential manufacturing operation in Lenox Dale, if allowed at all, should require a special permit from the zoning board.

But Spaulding contended that some residents "are against marijuana, as a product, as an idea, as a moral construct, so if it isn't an outright prohibition, their vote is no. I'm not sure a `no' in the Dale gets them on board."

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


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