After Plan Board Deadlock, Pot Shop Zoning Bylaw May Not Go Forward

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Municipal Planning and Zoning , Zoning/land use , Marijuana

Businesses vying for licenses to sell recreational marijuana in Orleans faced public questioning last week. FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM – A zoning bylaw prohibiting retail marijuana shops may not go before town meeting this May.

On a tie vote, the planning board last Tuesday failed to endorse the amendment, with several board members saying they saw it as overreach.

“It doesn't have the serious consequences you're thinking it will have,” said board member Robert Wirtshafter.

Selectmen will decide Tuesday if they will submit the zoning bylaw amendment to town meeting. They still plan to go ahead with a general bylaw banning pot shops, which has almost the same language as the zoning amendment. The board voted to support the general bylaw 4-1.

Selectman Dean Nicastro said decided to take a “belt and suspenders” approach by pursuing both bylaws out of concern that just the general bylaw could be seen as regulating both an activity as well as property use. On the advice of town counsel, selectmen decided to pursue both a general bylaw and a zoning amendment.

While the general bylaw only requires a majority to pass, the zoning amendment needs a two-thirds vote to become law. With the planning board failing to endorse it, should the measure fail at town meeting, it could not be brought back to voters for two years, Nicastro said. The matter is on the agenda of the board's Feb. 20 meeting.

If the general bylaw passes, Nicastro said he envisions bringing the zoning amendment back up in a year or so.

At last week's planning board meeting, Nicastro noted that 57 percent of the town's voters opposed the ballot question to legalize recreational marijuana in November 2016, one of the highest percentages in the state. Because of that, the town can prohibit retail sales of pot with a town meeting vote. The measure doesn't impact medicinal marijuana, which is legal in Massachusetts, nor the private possession of marijuana allowed under the law.

He opposes allowing pot sales here because “they are not consistent with the historical character and setting of the town of Chatham.” It would take away from the town's “family friendly” and inject a measure of tawdriness and seemliness in town,” he said.

Wirtshafter rejected that idea, saying legalized pot sales haven't had that effect elsewhere. In fact, it's been an economic boom in some places. “It's a legal use and not even a very powerful drug,” he added, noting that the town has many shops that sell alcohol and there's not much “effort to control that drug.”

“Fifty-seven percent of people voting against it doesn't seem to me a compelling reason to ban it,” he said.

He had backing from board member Peter Farber, who also felt the ban was an overreaction and that alcohol is a bigger problem.

In recent housing discussions, officials talked about making the town more family-friendly, said resident Elaine Gibbs. “I think it's pretty bizarre that we would even consider having pot shops in Chatham if that's what we're promoting.” Allowing retail marijuana sales would impact property values and cast a negative light on the town, she said.

Three planning board members – Wirtshafter, Peter Farber and John Marsh – voted against supporting the bylaw amendment. Chairman Peter Cocolis and members Robert Dubis and Tom Geagan voted in support. With a tie vote, the motion to support the bylaw failed.

Along with retail pot shops, both zoning and general bylaws ban marijuana cultivation, testing and product manufacturing. While Selectman Shareen Davis argued that could eliminate possible economic opportunities for residents, Nicastro said he was concerned allowing those activities could be a “slippery slope.”

“It won't take long before people come forward and say, hey, I can cultivate marijuana in town, can create products, but I can't sell them in the town of Chatham. I think that will result in a pressure to eliminate the ban on pot [sales],” he said.