EAST ORLEANS — In a session that lasted more than four and a half hours, voters at Saturday’s special town meeting made key decisions about the town’s financial future, showed interest in some big-ticket projects, and approved limited marijuana retail operations in town.
The entire warrant was a bit of an experiment in COVID-safe voting, with voters casting ballots from their vehicles using hand-held electronic polling devices. The process was slow and methodical but worked well, though high voter turnout delayed the start of the session nearly a half-hour as cars continued to stream into the meeting site, the parking lot at Nauset Beach. More than 500 registered voters attended.
Two articles on the warrant dealing with retail marijuana operations were approved after lengthy debate. One, which amends the zoning bylaw to allow up to two retail establishments by special permit in the limited business, general business and industrial zones, effectively reversing a town meeting vote from two years ago. The measure passed 303-123, achieving the needed two-thirds majority. The second article, rescinding a general bylaw prohibiting retail sales in town, passed 295-113.
The articles had the unanimous support of the selectmen and majority support of the finance committee, but was opposed 3-2 by the planning board. Speaking for the minority of the finance committee, member Bob Renn said proponents are refusing to accept the 2018 vote, and said fees from marijuana retailers won’t solve the town’s revenue shortfall. “These shops do not add benefits to our business districts or our quality of life in town,” he said.
Resident Maureen Boyce said marijuana poses dangers to young people’s developing brains, and there is no need to have retailers in Orleans. For those who want to legally partake, “Please just drive to Brewster or Eastham,” she said.
Select Board member Kevin Galligan said various other businesses, from tattoo parlors to chiropractors, were also once illegal in Massachusetts, as was the consumption of alcohol. “Today there are 35 licensed establishments that sell or make available alcohol in this town,” he noted. Retail marijuana sales are now legal and should not be stigmatized, Galligan said. The town will receive 6 percent of a store’s sales for the first five years, and 3 percent thereafter, and the zoning bylaw amendment gives the town the ability to better regulate the businesses, in this case, restricting them from the village center.
Retired teacher Agnes Knowles said she’s keenly aware of the history of marijuana use among young people. “I’m now asking you to think facts, not scary propaganda,” she said. The zoning amendment puts limits on the retail operations, and the revenue could be used to support programs for young people like early childhood education or youth programs. As a senior citizen with “aches and pains,” she sees the positive benefit of cannabis, and would like to “not have to drive elsewhere and give my hard-earned tax dollars to neighboring towns. Keep the revenue in Orleans,” she said.
Answering a question by a voter, Police Chief Scott MacDonald said he queried the police chiefs in Provincetown and in Wareham, two other towns that now host marijuana retailers, about whether they had seen a spike in crime related to the stores. “Both chiefs indicated that there was none,” he said.
While Saturday’s warrant had no large capital projects, it gave voters the chance to consider studying several big-ticket projects. Voters approved a measure to conduct a feasibility study for renovating or expanding the fire department headquarters, along with engineering funds for dredging projects and a feasibility study for purchasing the Governor Prence Inn property on Route 6A.
Resident Marc Norgeot said that acquiring the former inn property is a good opportunity, but voters shouldn’t make the purchase without having a clear plan for the land first. The article sought $15,000 to study the potential reuses of the land, including affordable housing. “I think that we have the cart before the horse,” he said. Without a plan, buying the land would be an impulse purchase, he said.
Resident Bob Wilkinson said he’s been in the real estate industry for 42 years and the market during the pandemic is seeing unprecedented demand from buyers looking for homes away from the cities. “They are causing a red hot real estate market, which is virtually going to make it impossible for young people, our workforce, to ever buy a house here,” he said. “That door is closing for the first time in my life.” Wilkinson urged people to support the study and the purchase, and to set the property aside for development of workforce housing. Taxpayers agreed, passing the article 400-103.
By a similar margin, voters authorized the borrowing of $100,000 to fund a feasibility study of replacing or expanding the fire station, which has been plagued by indoor air quality problems, code violations and other shortcomings. A similar article passed town meeting last year but failed at the polls; this measure will also require a Proposition 2½ debt exclusion vote at the annual town election. They also authorized borrowing $675,000 for a new fire department pumper, and $50,000 to study dredge disposal sites in Pleasant Bay and the feasibility of dredging a channel to Mill Pond in Nauset Estuary. Both measures will likewise go before voters at the ballot box next year.
An article seeking funds to study the feasibility of building a community center failed to get the needed three-fourths majority vote to advance. Resident Kristin Knowles said a community center would be a gathering place for people of different ages and socioeconomic backgrounds; the facility would “build bridges and [lead to a] more cohesive community,” she said.
Resident Bill Risko said the study, and a community center, are unnecessary expenses. “You keep adding massive projects, expensive projects, that are just going to raise the tax rates up and up and up,” he said. “Just because you have homes that have escalated in price doesn’t mean we are all wealthy here,” Risko said. The article failed 297-266.
For the first time, Orleans residents will be paying to access beaches next year. Article 26 sought approval of a $25 beach sticker fee for residents. Select Board member Meff Runyon said the town’s beaches have long since ceased to be a “cash cow” and now operate at a deficit. With erosion claiming parts of the Nauset Beach parking lot and Liam’s restaurant, and with more of the spaces now occupied by year-round residents with free stickers, “half of the potential beach lot revenue is gone,” he said.
Resident Jane Doyle said the free beach parking is one of the few available activities for local families struggling to make ends meet. “Twenty-five dollars might not seem a lot to some of you, but to these families, it is significant,” she said.
Finance Committee Member Bob Renn said that by continuing to offer free parking for residents, the town puts itself at risk of legal challenges that make it ineligible for state and federal grants that could provide millions of dollars of relief. “To those of you who think this fee is exorbitant, I wish to point out that this is simple math,” he said. The article passed 375-66.
Voters approved several fiscal articles designed to strengthen the town’s finances during the pandemic crisis. By an overwhelming margin, 388-21, they opted to transfer nearly $4.25 million from free cash to a stabilization account, a fund specifically reserved for unusual, one-time expenses. The move will give the town a better ability to respond to unforeseen expenses and helps support the town’s strong bond rating. It is also safer than using free cash for that purpose, as the town has done in the past, since free cash fluctuates year to year. Finance Director Cathy Doane likened that practice to “using your savings account to pay your rent or your mortgage.”
Voters rejected a request for $350,000 to restore the eroding Mill Pond town landing and nixed an article that would have allowed qualifying senior taxpayers to “work off” some of their tax bill by volunteering for the town. They handily approved a zoning bylaw amendment designed to protect the practice by commercial fishermen of storing equipment on the property where they live.
Voters also approved a measure to rename the park at Academy Place “Veterans Memorial Park at Academy Place,” and approved a ban on the sale of single-use plastic water bottles. They also endorsed a resolution asking the town to create a comprehensive climate action plan, and in an apparent referendum on the remote voting system they were using, appropriated $25,000 to lease or purchase electronic voting equipment for use at the May annual town meeting.