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New Outdoor Marijuana Cultivation Bylaw Approved At Annual Williamstown Town Meeting

People in a row of bleacher seats hold up cards that say "yes"
Josh Landes
Voters at the Williamstown, Massachusetts annual town meeting on June 9th, 2021.

Voters in Williamstown, Massachusetts approved new marijuana zoning bylaws at the annual town meeting Wednesday night.

Williamstown residents gathered in the bleachers of Farley-Lamb Field at Williams College for a second outdoor town meeting in two years. Town officials sat on the football field, and Moderator Adam Filson wore a referee’s jersey at the podium to lead attendees through the rules of conduct for the meeting.

“And with that, it’s time to play ball,” he said before blowing a whistle to laughter and applause.

The biggest item on the warrant was article 29, which sought to make amendments to the town’s zoning bylaws for marijuana.

While it was supported 4 to 1 by the planning board, which spent months developing the plan, the town’s select board opposed it 4 to 1.

“In 2017, we voted to allow cannabis cultivation and manufacturing in our industrial and rural areas. Currently, we have very few rules in place to guide growers and to support the work of the zoning Board of Appeals that reviews applications. They asked the planning board for help," explained Planning Board Chair Stephanie Boyd. “At the moment, it is permissible to construct a large warehouse-type facility in rural Williamstown to have a year round, energy intensive, waste producing indoor grow operation or to reconstruct an existing facility like the currently empty Sweetwood building next door to the school. And today, an outdoor cultivator could have plants and fencing right up to the property line since our existing 25-foot setback rule only applies to structure and buildings. And the minimum lot size also only applies to structures. So it is clear to everyone that we need changes.”

Boyd broke down the product of months of research by the planning board.

“In addition to the existing town's development standards that apply to all projects, and the state regulations regarding licensing, the proposed bylaw increases the setback from property lines to 150 feet and to 200 feet from the road for larger canopies," she said. "Today, it is effectively zero. Stipulates a minimum setback from neighboring residents of 500 feet. Today there is none. Requires fencing to be screened with vegetation, or hidden behind topography. Today, no screening is required. Requires a minimum five acre lot in RR 2 and RR 3 for outdoor growing. Stipulates that the best available technology be used to limit odor and gives the ZBA the ability to hire a consultant for assistance in reviewing permits at the applicant's expense. Disallows large resource-intense indoor cultivation facilities to be constructed and operated in rural Williamstown and restricts them to industrial areas. Requires 25% on site renewable energy for indoor cultivation facilities and a waste management plan.”

It also adds an additional 150-foot buffer to the Mount Greylock High School property, which sits in farmland just south of town.

“The agricultural Commission has worked with the planning board for the past 18 months to develop this bylaw, which is very protective of neighbors," said Farmer and agricultural commission member Brian Cole. "The licensing process through the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission and the permitting process through the Williamstown zoning Board of Appeals provides many safeguards. Farms are businesses and they are only viable as long as they are profitable. Article 29 allows farmers a fair opportunity to diversify their businesses through cannabis cultivation while protecting neighbors with large setbacks and screening.”

But many Williamstowners were skeptical that the bylaw would do enough to protect the community. Andrew Skinner said he feared for the impact of the cannabis industry on the town’s youth as well as its impact on the town’s smell.

“Last October I drove to Sheffield twice to visit Nova Farm’s 80,000 square feet of canopy," he said. "I confirmed for myself plenty of dead skunk stench at 1,600 feet and skunky at 2,300.”

Two amendments were ultimately made to the proposed bylaw. One removed a footnote that would allow 5,000 square feet or less of outdoor marijuana cultivation being permitted by right, meaning any outdoor grow operation of any size would require a special permit from the town. The other doubled down on ensuring that existent odor ordinances would also apply to the marijuana bylaw.

Among other votes, Williamstowners also approved the town’s $8.5 million operating budget for fiscal year 2022 and a $12 million spending plan for the Mount Greylock Regional School District.

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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