Can Chatham Ban Pot Shops?

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Board of Selectmen News , Addiction

Chatham voters will address bylaws to ban retail sales of marijuana at May's annual town meeting. FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM Lawmakers on Beacon Hill are joining with Governor Charlie Baker to delay the implementation of a voter-approved law legalizing marijuana sales. Local officials are using that extra time to consider ways to keep pot retailers from opening shop in town.

While voters across the state approved the law by a 54 to 46 percent margin, Selectman Dean Nicastro said that more than 57 percent of Chatham voters rejected the proposal.

“It looks as though we were the seventh highest no vote in the state,” he said. Nicastro said he personally opposes having marijuana retailers in town, calling them “cheap, tawdry, unseemly,” and a bad influence that is inconsistent with the town's character.

“I would like to see them banned outright,” he said. A number of towns are seeking the best way to do so under the new law, which specifically allows communities to ban marijuana retailers, though the mechanism for doing so is questionable. At a recent meeting of the Cape Cod Selectmen and Councilors' Association, a number of board members traded ideas about how best to prohibit pot shops, Nicastro said.

Selectman Seth Taylor said that, with the governor's recent action, marijuana shops cannot open before July 1, 2018. The wording of the legislation raises a number of questions, he said.

“I think it's premature for us to discuss things that are still so very much up in the air,” Taylor said.

But board Chairman Jeffrey Dykens said that with more than 57 percent of Chatham voters opposing the law, “it's prudent to at least inform ourselves.”

Town Counsel Kathleen Connolly said many sections of the law are inconsistent and need clarification. A statewide association of town counsels is actively seeking that clarification, she added.

“Thankfully we do have this extension,” she said. “You do have the option of complete prohibition, which is unusual,” Connolly said. With strip clubs and other adult entertainment businesses, municipalities must allow the uses though they can adopt zoning amendments that restrict them to out-of-the-way locations.

Based on her own reading of the law, Connolly said it appears towns can opt out by a vote at the ballot, after which they would apparently craft a bylaw prohibiting the use in town. Unlike adult entertainment, the bylaw does not necessarily need to be a zoning amendment, she said.

It is likely that some inconsistencies in the law will need to be corrected, and it is also possible that those clarifications will come after municipalities act to restrict pot retailers and are then challenged in court, she said.

Given the delay, it appears that the town can wait until the 2018 spring town meeting to take any action, rather than rushing to create a bylaw change for voters to consider this May, Nicastro said.

“Whatever we do, we certainly want to get input from the public,” he added, since more than 42 percent of the town's voters supported the legislation.

Dykens said while the law remains a “moving target,” the best approach for banning pot shops would likely to have a bylaw change or zoning amendment on the warrant at a town meeting, followed by a ballot question a few days later.

“I would think that would be a binding vote whether it's a bylaw or a change to the zoning regulations,” he said.

Connolly said she and other town counsels will continue to monitor the progress of the law and efforts to clarify it. She said she would brief selectmen on any developments as they occur.