Chatham Bans Balloons, Pot Shops

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Politics , Town Meeting , Marijuana

The only hand count of the evening was taken on the bylaw banning the sale of balloons. The measure passed 236-160. TIM WOOD PHOTO

Retirement Funding, Library Improvements, Senior Center Study OK'd By Town Meeting

CHATHAM – Environmental awareness triumphed over the decades-old tradition of brightly colored balloons decorating Kate Gould Park during summer Chatham Band concerts Monday, as annual town meeting voters approved a ban on the sale of inflated balloons beginning in September.

Voters also embraced a bylaw banning marijuana establishments in town which included not just retail shops but testing laboratories, manufacturing and cultivation operations. Opponents of the ban said it was an economic and not a social or addiction issue, but those who supported it prevailed with the argument that pot businesses did not comport with the town's historical character and family-friendly reputation.

Voters completed the 49-article annual meeting warrant in under three and a half hours, approving a $30 million operating budget (an .88 percent increase), $9 million Monomoy Regional School District budget, $2.7 million water budget and $2 million capital spending program with no discussion.

Also approved by the 450 voters in attendance were funds for a feasibility study for a new council on aging facility; building and site improvements for the Eldredge Public Library; authorization for selectmen to submit legislation to reposition a portion of the land bank surcharge to pay for retired employee benefits; and $1.5 million in Community Preservation Act projects.

The Chatham Masonic Lodge has sold balloons at the Chatham Band concerts for several summers, but the tradition began by the local American Field Service chapter in 1968, said Finance Committee member Norma Avellar.

“We had no idea what damage we were doing selling those balloons,” she said. “Now we know.”

Under the general bylaw approved by voters, the sale or distribution of any type of balloon inflated with light-than-air gas, such as helium, is prohibited, as is discarding or releasing inflated or uninflated balloons. Police are charged with enforcing the bylaw and can issue a warning on the first offense, a $25 fine for a second offense and a $100 fine for a third offense. It goes into effect Sept. 15, after the summer season ends.

Most speakers acknowledged that balloons that are released into the air contribute to pollution on land and sea and are a threat to creatures such as birds and turtles, who often mistake them for food. But balloons are only a small fraction of the pollution found on the shore and in marine waters, they said.

“Why are we not talking about the elephant in the room, plastics?” said Anita Harris, a Chatham Band member. The ban is discriminatory because it targets specific events – the 10 summer band concerts and the Fourth of July parade – where balloons are openly sold, she said. A better way to deal with the problem is “education, not regulation,” she said.

While he supports wildlife, Steve Burlingame said the bylaw went a little too far. “I think we've lost our perspective here,” he said. Rebecca Ready said the Masons are careful to use cotton string to tie balloons to the wrist of children and explain that they should not release the balloons. It's unfair to target them while weddings held at hotels and other private establishments are free to have as many balloons as they want, she said.

“Band concerts will go on, but it won't be the same,” she said.

Others, however, noted that attitudes about littering, smoking and feeding ducks and geese have changed over the years. “We all figured out that wasn't the thing to do,” said Barbara Waters. Lighthouse Charter School student Spencer Drake invoked John F. Kennedy's efforts to preserve the Cape through the Cape Cod National Seashore, saying it would be “reckless of us to allow balloons to destroy the environment of Cape Cod.”

Susannah Nickerson said a friend picked up 534 latex and mylar balloons along the town's shore in a four-month period. “It is clear that the environmental cost of the release even one balloon is high,” she said. Avellar added that there are “all sorts of cheap gimcracks on that market” that the Masons and others could sell to take the place of balloons.

After rejecting an amendment that would have allowed local nonprofit organizations to obtain a special permit to continue to sell balloons, the meeting adopted the bylaw by a 236-160 vote.

Chatham voted against the 2016 ballot question legalizing recreational marijuana sales 2,611 to 1,924, and state law allows towns that did so to ban pot businesses through a town meeting vote, explained Selectman Dean Nicastro. He said he believed retail marijuana establishments are inconsistent with the town's historical character and family-friendly nature, but explained that the general bylaw approved by voters Monday does not address personal behavior. Medicinal marijuana and recreational marijuana use remain legal under state law. The bylaw “simply bans recreational marijuana retail establishments within the bounds of the town of Chatham,” he said.

Selectmen voted 4-1 in support of the ban. Shareen Eldredge, the only member who voted against it, said she believed the measure was too far-reaching. While there may be general agreement that retail pot shops are not a good fit here, testing lab, product manufacturing and cultivation could be regulated in industrial areas and enhance economic opportunities for local residents.

“We're not talking social issues here, we're talking about business regulation,” she said.

But it was clear that a majority of town meeting voters did not buy that argument.

“This is probably the most insidious issue we have faced in a long time,” said Avellar. Many addicts began with pot because they thought it was “safe and harmless,” only to “pay a terrible price,” she said, adding that she was embarrassed that some saw this as an economic issue. “Since when is money more important than lives?”

Dr. Margaret Tompsett supported the ban, saying that legalization in other locations led to increases in traffic accidents and hospitalizations for psychosis. Planning Board member Robert Wirtshafter disputed her statements, citing studies that found that opioid use dropped, arrests went down and tax revenue went up in communities where marijuana was legalized. He noted that the planning board deadlocked on a zoning bylaw amendment banning retail pot sales, so the measure did not go forward.

“Pot shops are respectable stores serving respectable customers,” he said. “That's why we have them regulated.” He added that banning shops in Chatham will not impact access to marijuana, since similar bans in Brewster, Orleans and other Cape towns failed. John Poignand added that pot is now readily available “on any street corner” town and allowing it to be legally sold would ensure that it would not be laced with other substances, as well as allow control over the level of THC.

“Having it non-controlled in my belief is the most harmful thing we can do,” he said.

The town has 30 year-round liquor license and 10 seasonal licenses, said Karen McPherson, adding that her mother and brother were addicted to alcohol. “Is it ever abused? Oh, yes!” she said.

“How many of us have ever come home and said 'what a day – I need a drink,'” she said. But Elaine Gibbs said more people would flock to town if pot shops are allowed to open. “What message are we sending to our kids and our grandkids?” she said.

The pot ban bylaw passed on a voice vote.

With no discussion, voters approved $100,000 for a feasibility study and hire an owners project manager to complete conceptual designs for a new council on aging facility. The town last year conducted a space needs study to replace the current overcrowded facility on Stony Hill Road, projecting a need for a 14,000- to 16,000-square-foot building to accommodate programs for the town's senior population, at a cost of $7 to $10 million. Officials made it clear Monday that the study would not go forward until selectmen settle on a site for the new facility; several have been suggested, including town-owned land on Middle Road, land behind the community center and some privately owned parcels.

There was also no discussion on the vote approving $483,000 to improve site safety and access and upgrade the Eldredge Public Library building. The library hasn't had any substantial improvements since the 1991 edition, said Friends of the Eldredge Public Library president Kerry Brown, and the proposed plans are primarily directed at improving safety and making the library and its grounds more accessible. The project will make the library “not only useful but attractive,” added Avellar, who called the historic building the emotional and physical center of the community, “a gem for everyone in this town.”

A $450,000 beach nourishment project to protect Nantucket Sound beaches, primarily Cockle Cove and Harding's Beach, was approved with no discussion. A $111,250 appropriation to fund the town's share of the reconstruction of the parallel taxiway at Chatham Municipal Airport also passed, but not without some voters questioning whether the facility shouldn't be generating more revenue to cover the cost. Airport Commission member Rene Haas said the project has long been included on the airport's master plan and $2 million of the $2.2 million cost will be paid by the federal government. The commission is looking into additional revenue possibilities, including a solar farm, but he said the airport generates millions of dollars in economic activity for the town and is something that “makes Chatham different and unique.”

“We need to keep the airport maintained in order for that future to be assured,” he said.

Voters approved the annual $150,000 contribution to the town's other post-employment benefit (OPEB) fund – which covers the cost of benefits for retired town employees – but officials said at that pace it will take 112 years to cover the town's $16 million OPEB liability. To move toward that goal more quickly, officials had proposed two more revenue sources: repositioning the Cape Cod Land Bank property tax surcharge and instituting a .5 percent tax on the sale of homes. Both require the approval of home-rule legislation by the General Court. Cutting the 3 percent land bank surcharge, which is slated to end in 2020, in half would raise about $494,590 annually, while the real estate transfer tax would raise another $743,000 based on past sales. Both provisions would sunset after 10 years.

The only other option to reach the OPEB goal in a reasonable amount of time would be to raise property taxes by about 20 cents, which would yield $1.2 million annually but cost the average homeowner more than the alternatives being proposed, said Nicastro.

While voters agreed to authorize the selectmen to file legislation to reposition the land bank surcharge, they rejected the real estate transfer tax. A number of voters said that since the OPEB obligation stemmed from town employees whose work benefited all residents, the debt should be paid by everyone, not just those who sell their homes.

“It's an obligation we all incurred and should be spread as evenly as possible,” said Ron Bergstrom.

A number of water department capital articles were approved, including $1 million to replace old mains, $550,000 for a vactor truck that will be used by three departments, $150,000 for new water mains on Bridge Street, and $290,000 for a new computer control system for the department. Voters also approved $85,000 to continue efforts to fight the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's claim to waters and submerged lands west of Monomoy.

Community Preservation Act projects approved included $450,000 for new bleachers at Veterans Field; $262,500 to purchase Bridge Street property for use as a town landing; $48,000 to complete an archaeological dig at the Nickerson Homestead on Orleans Road; and $20,000 to preserve historic town documents. There was some objection to CPA articles for work on tees at the town-owned Seaside Links Golf Course, with several voters questioning whether the work should be including in maintenance budgets for the facility.

A number of affordable housing projects funded through the CPA were also approved, including $200,000 for a housing buy-down program to lower the price of affordable homes; $10,000 to update the town's housing production plan; and $5,000 to hire a housing consultant to help with the plan.

For the first time in two decades, voters also address a consent calendar that grouped 16 noncontroversial measures into a single article. Several objections were heard on a voice vote, Moderator William Litchfield called for a standing count, those voices were silenced and he declared the article passed unanimously. Among the articles approved under the consent calendar were the Cape Cod Technical High School budget, participation in a Pleasant Bay watershed permit pilot project with Brewster, Orleans and Harwich, and an update of the Pleasant Bay Resource Management Plan.

Town Manager Jill Goldsmith said approval of all budget and financial articles on the warrant will raise the current $4.85 tax rate 3.51 percent, or .17 cents, for an estimated fiscal 2019 tax rate of $5.04.