Marijuana-related items to highlight Amherst fall Town Meeting

Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 08, 2017

AMHERST — While preparing the town for the arrival of recreational marijuana outlets will be a primary focus for fall Town Meeting, the warrant also includes articles aiming to protect the long-term viability of Amherst’s public schools and to mandate that new municipal buildings are “zero energy.”

The 17 articles will be taken up by the town’s 240-member legislative body beginning at 7 p.m. Monday at the Amherst Regional Middle School auditorium.

With marijuana sales scheduled to begin in 2018, and the state Cannabis Control Commission still developing regulations for the industry, Town Meeting will be asked to set a cap of eight recreational marijuana retailers that can operate in Amherst, and to establish a 3 percent local option tax on the product.

Economic Development Director Geoff Kravitz said the five marijuana-related articles will help Amherst “be as prepared as possible” for the new industry.

“It’s important for the town to act on these now,” Town Manager Paul Bockelman said.

The Select Board is supporting the limit on retail shops, though board members have said they would agree to a lower number. Two of four medical marijuana retailers have already gone through local permitting and are likely to be able to sell both medical and recreational marijuana next year.

Both the Select Board and Finance Committee are recommending the 3 percent local options tax, the most allowed by the state, as a way to cover costs associated with health, safety and education.

Another article would prohibit the use of marijuana in public places, similar to an existing town bylaw related to tobacco use, as well as the more stringent open container bylaw.

Town Meeting members will also have an opportunity to approve a temporary moratorium that would push recreational pot sales back to 2019. Though this is an option, town officials have noted that 74 percent of voters in Amherst supported marijuana legalization a year ago.

Meantime, the Planning Board has crafted a new use category that would guide town planners on where shops could locate, including allowing them to be in mixed-use buildings with residences.

School articles

Facing challenges of declining enrollment and children leaving for area charter schools, the Amherst School Committee is bringing forward two articles.

One is establishing the Regional School District Planning Committee, which could create new revenue streams by regionalizing Amherst and Pelham’s elementary schools into one district. While the towns already share a school superintendent, and secondary students are regionalized with Shutesbury and Leverett, the schools operate independently.

During a recent review of the warrant, Committee Chairwoman Phoebe Hazzard explained the potential benefits of regionalization, including $240,000 in annual transportation reimbursement and one-time bonus aid of $63,650. The earliest regionalization could occur is fall 2020.

Hazzard said this is less complicated than attempting full K-12 regionalization, which would require amending an existing agreement.

Pelham voters authorized creation of the planning committee at a special Town Meeting in October.

The second article takes aim at what Hazzard calls the “fundamentally flawed” formula for funding charter schools, noting that it punishes a district like Amherst that funds special needs and English Language Learner programs.

Town Meeting is being asked to call on the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to no longer authorize additional charter schools and expansions of existing charter schools until the Legislature provides full reimbursement.

Zero energy

A petition to create a bylaw to require so-called net zero energy town buildings is creating concern for town officials.

While supporters acknowledge it would add costs and limit flexibility in how a project is built, Select Board members are worried the town may have to abandon plans to build a new Department of Public Works headquarters and fire station in South Amherst if the bylaw is adopted. The Select Board supports a resolution, but not a mandate.

But lead petitioner Lee Jennings said Amherst can be in front on what will become a common building practice by the 2020s.

Besides the marijuana zoning, the only other significant zoning change being brought before Town Meeting relates to how parking structures are permitted.

This amendment would allow commercial parking to be regulated in a zoning district under Planning Board site plan review, rather than Zoning Board of Appeals special permit, and make it easier for privately developed parking to be built.

The Public Shade Tree Commission is seeking to establish a bylaw that would allow for collection of fines for anyone who removes a public shade tree. This would create an ongoing fund to plant new trees and maintain the town’s tree canopy.

Three other petitions are on the warrant, including one from the Friends of the North Amherst Library seeking $50,000 in reserve cash to pay for a planning study to make the library in the village center handicapped accessible.

The Finance Committee is not recommending the article because it didn’t come from library trustees and the Joint Capital Planning Committee. Bockelman said he is also worried that this didn’t follow the town’s normal “highly disciplined process.”

Patricia Holland, a member of the Friends group, said that the 1893 building is in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act because it is not wheelchair accessible.

But Bockelman said the building is only out of compliance with ADA.

Other petition articles include an advisory to promote use of 100 percent renewable energy and endorsing the state Legislature acting on the End of Life Options Act.

Other articles include transferring $1.3 million from reserve cash to the town’s stabilization account, creating the Town Meeting Advisory Committee and clarifying language in the use and dimensional standards section of the town’s zoning code.