Where will Lenox voters fall on recreational pot when smoke clears?

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LENOX — With an action-packed annual town meeting only two weeks away, voters are facing a set of complex, confusing cannabis choices with two competing zoning proposals on the agenda, each requiring a two-thirds supermajority for approval.

Depending on how the Planning Board's bylaw for tight regulation and a citizens petition for a townwide recreational marijuana prohibition are presented and perceived, Lenox could wind up with more disarray on the morning after the May 2 meeting, rather than less, as town officials had hoped.

In an effort to avoid a marijuana free-for-all throughout the town, the Select Board has voted 3-2 to let voters consider first the compromise Planning Board zoning bylaw that would restrict potential cannabis entrepreneurs to the commercial zones along Pittsfield Road north of downtown and manufacturing businesses only allowed in the compact Lenox Dale industrial zone.

Any applicant would face the high hurdle of gaining a Zoning Board special permit on top of the array of state regulations, permits and local community host agreements required in any town.

If the Planning Board's bylaw captures the needed supermajority, or falls short, voters then would consider the citizens petition written by resident Richard DeFazio and signed by 36 registered voters that would ban all marijuana enterprises anywhere in town.

But, as Chief Administrative Officer Christopher Ketchen explained at a recent Select Board meeting, approval of the citizens petition for townwide prohibition would require a follow-up ballot vote at a special election required no sooner than mid-June.

With the town's extended moratorium on marijuana businesses set to expire June 30, with no possibility of another extension, failure of the prohibition bylaw at the townwide election would mean Lenox would have a free-for-all, with no zoning for cannabis in place starting July 1.

"It's a crash schedule," Ketchen acknowledged. "We want to try to settle this at the annual town meeting, one way or another. That's what we're trying to move toward here."

That follow-up townwide ballot vote is required by state law no sooner than 35 days after the annual town meeting. That's because Lenox approved the November 2016 statewide ballot referendum legalizing adult-use recreational marijuana. The margin was 53.3 percent in favor, 46.7 percent against.

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If voters at a mid-June special election fail to approve a prohibition, prospective entrepreneurs could seek to open pot businesses anywhere in town where commercial activity is allowed, including the downtown historic village and the Lenox Dale commercial area adjoining that community's residential zone.

Ketchen and Town Hall staff originally had recommended a strategy of placing the prohibition petition ahead of the Planning Board's zoning bylaw.

At the meeting, Selectman Neal Maxymillian asked Ketchen what would happen if both marijuana proposals fail to win two-thirds approval from voters. Before the question was answered, he suggested placing the Planning Board zoning bylaw ahead of the citizens prohibition proposal, thus trying to persuade voters to approve restrictions rather than a total ban or a free-for-all.

Supporting Town Hall's original suggested sequence, Selectman Edward Lane pointed out that instead of risking prohibition approval at the town meeting followed by failure on the required townwide ballot, voters should understand that the Planning Board compromise "is the next best thing they're going to get."

But Maxymillian suggested that he could offer "Dear Public" advice to town meeting voters.

"Let's take our first bite of the apple by restricting it just to the commercial zone, so now that we know that's what you've got under your belt, in a minute we'll have a whole discussion about banning it altogether," he said, "but should that not pass, at least we've got something."

Also advocating for a vote first on the Planning Board proposal, Selectman David Roche described it as "a little more succinct and more easily understood by the voters" than the citizens petition, "which requires a lot of explaining and would chew up an awful lot of time."

"It's a complicated issue, no matter what," Maxymillian agreed. He pointed out another layer of complexity: "Who shows up at the town meeting doesn't match who shows up at a ballot vote. Those are two different populations, with a lot of overlap, but not completely."

The selectmen then voted to re-sequence the marijuana articles, so town meeting voters will decide on the Planning Board's restrictive zoning proposal first, followed by the citizens petition that would impose total prohibition on recreational marijuana businesses of all types throughout Lenox.

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


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