ATHOL — Maybe people had already made up their minds regarding most of the articles on the warrant, or maybe they just wanted to dispense with the town’s business so they could get home for Game 3 of the ALCS between the Red Sox and Astros. In either case, it took voters just over an hour to dispense with the 13 articles under consideration at Athol’s fall town meeting, held Monday, Oct. 18.
The article generating the most discussion happened to be Article 13, which would have established zoning regulations governing both open air and enclosed outdoor cultivation of marijuana. The Finance and Warrant Advisory Committee made no recommendation regarding passage of the article, but it was, by a vote of 5-2, recommended for passage by the Board of Planning and Community Development (BPCD).
Outdoor cultivation would have been limited to parcels of 20 acres or more and the area employed for the growth of marijuana would have required a 300-foot setback from a given parcel’s lot lines. Operations would have been allowed in the Residential C, General Commercial, and Industrial zones by special permit only.
In response to a question from the audience, Athol Planning and Development Director Eric Smith, citing regulations of the state’s Cannabis Control Commission, said it was his understanding that the amount of land dedicated to cannabis cultivation would be limited to about 2½ acres per parcel.
Rising to oppose the article, Selectboard member Mitch Grosky said, “I just have one simple question: a marijuana farm — of 20 acres, 50 acres, 100 acres — is this really what we want for Athol, for our families and children here in this community? I have my doubts that the town really wants that.”
Resident Brian Hall asked about the involvement of neighbors of an outdoor cultivation operation, and also about penalties an operator may face for failing to abide by restrictions included in any permit.
David Small, Chair of the BPCD, said abutters would be notified upon application being made for a special permit.
“The process for non-compliance,” said Small, “rests with the building inspector. They have a process — I don’t know exactly how it works — but there’s a complaint, then they have to rectify it, and then fines could be levied.
“These are larger land-holdings. There’s not that many of them left. They’re getting divided up more and more all the time. So, I don’t expect there would be a huge run on this.”
“The current open-air farms that exist in some of these small rural towns in western Massachusetts,” said Selectboard Chair Rebecca Bialecki, “are all run by people from Eastern Mass. None of these are local. Even the people who came to our community development meetings to talk about this idea and try to promote it were not from this area at all.
“If you think the smell is bad coming from MassGrow on certain days of the week in the summertime, I can’t even imagine what an open-air one would be like if you’re downwind of it. I’m not in support of it. I hope other folks will vote this down.”
As it turned out, the article — which required a two-thirds majority for approval — was soundly defeated, with only 12 in favor and 91 opposed.
The only other article to go down to defeat proposed several zoning amendments relative to battery storage energy systems. A special permit would have been required for so-called Tier 2 systems with an energy capacity of between 600 kW and 10 mW. Smaller Tier 1 units, used to store energy generated by residential solar systems, would have required a building permit, electrical permit, and a permit from the fire chief.
A number of other regulations were also proposed.
The article, which also required a two-thirds vote, died on a vote of 34 for and 32 against.
Several other zoning amendments relative to cannabis businesses, downtown zoning, and bed and breakfast operations were all approved by large majorities.
Also getting the voters’ endorsement was a proposal to give the Selectboard authority to seek special legislation allowing for the creation of a rent control board, specifically designed to address issues related to the Millers Wood/River Bend manufactured home park off Daniel Shays Highway.
“This rent control is not applicable to the entire town,” Bialecki explained. “It’s very specific to the manufactured home park. We’re doing this at the request of the residents over there, who went through some significant upheaval earlier this year about the corporate ownership of the park changing their rent structure significantly. We’re doing this for the future.”
The article was approved unanimously, as was a proposal to discontinue a portion of Thrower Road, the funding of an additional police officer for the remainder of the fiscal year, and for providing a 25 percent local match to a state grant awarding the town 75 percent of the cost of a feasibility study for the planning and layout of the proposed Rabbit Run Rail Trail.
A total of 142 voters showed up to take part in the meeting.
Greg Vine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org