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Petition pushes pot question onto Oct. 3 Westport Special Town Meeting

Some fear call for ban of non-medical marijuana sales will draw crowd to meeting

By Bruce Burdett
Posted 9/17/20

WESTPORT — Prodded by petitioners, the Board of Selectmen last week added a third and final article to the upcoming Special Town Meeting warrant. The late addition was just the sort of crowd …

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Petition pushes pot question onto Oct. 3 Westport Special Town Meeting

Some fear call for ban of non-medical marijuana sales will draw crowd to meeting

Posted

WESTPORT — Prodded by petitioners, the Board of Selectmen last week added a third and final article to the upcoming Special Town Meeting warrant. The late addition was just the sort of crowd and debate-drawing article board members had said they hoped to avoid.

The third article seeks to amend the marijuana bylaw to prohibit non-medical marijuana businesses from operating within Westport. 

Although they wanted to keep crowds small and debate short for public health reasons, selectmen had no choice but to include the marijuana question since it was produced by a successful petition drive.

Setting the date

First at the September 8 selectmen meeting, the board set the date for that Special Town Meeting — Saturday, Oct. 3, at 10 a.m. The meeting will be held outdoors behind the high school, the same location as the regular Town Meeting held on July 25.

Before voting, board members heard from Town Moderator Steven Fors who agreed with that choice of time and place.

“I think (outdoors on October 3) is the best choice because of the petition that has been submitted” regarding outlawing non-medical marijuana. 

“I am anticipating that, rather than being a short meeting with a small audience, it’s going to be a large meeting with a significantly larger attendance which I think would make it unsafe to hold indoors.” 

And, “the sooner the better,” before the weather turns too cold for outdoor meetings.

Selectman Steve Ouellette asked whether anyone has checked with school officials to see if there are any conflicts with school activities.

Town Administrator Tim King replied that he discussed the possibility with the superintendent of schools “and he said he would be willing to accommodate in any way he can.”

Selectmen voted unanimously to approve that time and place.

The other two articles on the warrant are:

• A re-do of the July 25 vote to rebuild the Westport Elementary School roof so that voters in November can approve payment of the project by debt exclusion borrowing.

• Changes to the town budget that was approved at the July 25 Town Meeting to deal with the fact that since July 25 the town has received $1.1 million more from the state than anticipated.

Marijuana article

The petition article to outlaw non-medical marijuana facilities in town was spurred in considerable part by objections to a proposed “Old Soul Gardens” marijuana business at 1104 Main Road in the Central Village area.

Signatures were collected despite pleas by selectmen at their previous meeting that townspeople avoid adding articles involving controversial topics or zoning matters that might draw crowds.

But having been notified of the petition article, board Chairman Richard Brewer said, “The Board of Selectmen has no authority not to accept this if it has the required signatures.”

Board member Shana Shufelt asked that the leaders of the petition drive attend the next selectmen meeting on September 21 to give a presentation about the article “so the people will know what is being talked about.” She also said that the zoning bylaw will conflict with the general bylaw if this is successful.”

Town Meeting voters have already approved non-medical marijuana businesses in town and, said board member Brian Valcourt, “We have discussed this at length at previous meetings over the past two years.”

He objected to the use of the term “recreational marijuana.”

“We have stopped calling it recreational marijuana. We don’t call it recreational alcohol … we call it non-medical marijuana. The recreational moniker has been put on it to make it sound like an irresponsible practice … It’s an intended slight.”

“Our concern is about location, not semantics,” an audience member replied. “The concern is about impact on the neighborhood and community.”

“We are not saying people who use marijuana are irresponsible at all,” added audience member Serena Alves. “We are just really concerned for our neighborhoods and our children and where we live.”

Mike Fernandes, a neighbor of the location sought by Old Soul Gardens, said voters were misled at the Town Meeting when the sale of non-medical marijuana was approved — “they were led to believe that this can only go on Route 6.”

The town has received proposals for six marijuana locations in Westport in just the past six months, he said. “We are left with no other option than to reverse everything.”

“If you had bothered to look at the overlay map,” Mr. Valcourt replied, you would see that the only place in town where all of the zoning criteria can be met is on Route 6.

“You can wait until the next Town Meeting to address the zoning, he added. “You have a commitment from five selectmen saying we’re not going to let it happen in the village because the traffic flow and logistics don’t work.”

Attorney Brian Corey Jr., who represents Coastal Healing, a company already well along in its efforts to put a medical marijuana facility on Route 6, said “this article has not been thought out well. It does not represent the truth of the matter.”

“That Main Road location,” he said, “does meet the requirements of the zoning bylaw. It will be denied by the (Zoning) Board of Review” before it ever goes to selectmen, adding that “applicants threw a lot of stuff against the wall to see if it would work … The big Zoom meeting was a scary thing but it was unnecessary.”

Host Agreement

With one marijuana company seeking to start business near residences in Central Village and the possibility of more to follow, selectmen need to put to writing their policy for considering the required “host community agreements” for such facilities, the town’s attorneys advised.

A draft of such an agreement, prepared by Mr. King with language provided by the town’s lawyers, was presented to the board at the September 8 meeting.

The lengthy document, modeled after some used in other towns, list the sorts of things selectmen need to know about the applicants and their marijuana plans. It includes an application form and lists town requirements. Among the many items mentioned are appropriateness of location, business plan, key personnel and financial backers, building design, timeline, traffic plans and much more (a copy will be placed on the town website).

Ms. Shufelt said she was pleasantly surprised to see that it stipulates that site review by the Planning Board be done before the matter gets to selectmen. She said she has been confused about the role of the Planning Board and whether that review should happen before that of selectmen, an order she thinks makes sense.

“It is a larger investment for the firm up front but they are going to have to make it anyway.”

Mr. King agreed, saying it would be valuable to selectmen to be able to draw on the expertise of the Planning Board and town planner.

Ms. Shufelt also said she does not wish to enter into any host community agreement involving non-medical marijuana until after the October 3 special town meeting.

Several audience members voiced concern, however, that Coastal Healing, whose application has been in the works for months, has yet to receive its host community agreement.

Mr. Corey said that Coastal Healing has already provided answers to everything included in the town’s host agreement draft as part of the state permitting process.

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