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Williamstown Embraces Equity, Stalls On Outdoor Marijuana Cultivation At Town Meeting

The Williamstown Town seal
Town of Williamstown

Residents of Williamstown, Massachusetts gathered at Williams College's Weston Field for a socially distanced annual town meeting Tuesday.

Select board member Jane Patton – first elected in 2013 – told WAMC Wednesday that the meeting for the town of around 7,500 was one to remember.

“It was cold,” she laughed. “My legs were still cold when I woke up this morning.”

At the almost four-hour meeting, most of the items on the warrant passed easily – including the $1.1 million capital improvement program, raising $8.1 million through taxation and other means to pay town expenses, and the $12.1 million Mount Greylock School District budget.

“The two really big takeaways came about from the marijuana cultivation articles and then the social justice and equity articles,” said Patton.

Two competing marijuana zoning bylaws – one from the town’s planning board and one by the town’s agricultural commission – fell short of the 2/3rds majority required for passage.

“When the first set of zoning bylaws were put in place in 2017, the Cannabis Control Commission hadn’t even been formed yet," explained Patton. "And so we had a very loose set of guidelines, really because we had no experience but we felt like we should have something.”

The planning commission’s draft would have put more restrictions on indoor marijuana cultivation and initially outright banned outdoor cultivation, before being amended to allow for outdoor growing to occur with special permits in two zones. The agricultural commission’s bylaw, which made it to the warrant via citizen petition, proposed granting licenses for outdoor cultivation to support a new cash crop for local farmers.

“The challenge I think some had with the citizen’s petition was while it allowed outdoor growth, it was still a significant amount – and there were just some things about it that didn’t quite make sense," Patton told WAMC. "There was a lot of conversation about farmers and doing this to help farmers, but within the petition itself, farmers were never mentioned. It talked about how this would boost rural agricultural zones, but no such zones exist.”

Proponents of the citizen petition said that mapping indicated outdoor marijuana cultivation could happen without disturbing residential neighborhoods.

“But when asked to show the maps about that that they were referencing, it turns out there are no maps,” said Patton.

The failure of both bylaws put the town back to square one on the issue, returning outdoor marijuana cultivation zoning to the Planning Board’s docket for another year.

Two other citizen petitions passed at the end of the meeting.

“One was to ask the entire town to embrace the ‘Not In Our County’ pledge, which essentially is designed to say that we are all committed to creating an atmosphere and a community in Williamstown where people of color, especially people who identify as Black, feel comfortable and welcomed and desired and encouraged to be woven into the fabric of Williamstown,” explained Patton.

Patton said the move to bring the petition before the entire town came after this year’s rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The vote came just days after a Williamstown police officer filed suit in federal court against the town and its police department, alleging that its culture is defined by racism, sexual assault, and retaliatory measures against critics.

This week, Williams College president Maud Mandel called for a “prompt, full and impartial investigation” into the claims.

“And then the second one was about making sure Williamstown is equitable especially in terms of affordable housing and so on- Because there’s a shortage of housing that is affordable in Williamstown," said Patton. "So doing more that we can to embrace that and to make sure that no one is fearful and feels safe and welcome.”

In addition to emphasizing the input of traditionally marginalized groups in the town’s planning, the petition also calls for equity training for town employees and elected officials.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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