SHIRLEY -- Should recreational marijuana facilities be allowed in town and if so, where? The Planning Board has been grappling with that question since December, while drafting six warrant articles for the March 5 Special Town Meeting.
The proposed articles -- three yes or no questions and three bylaw proposals -- were unveiled at a sparsely-attended public hearing Wednesday night. The articles will be presented to the selectmen at their next meeting for inclusion on the warrant, Chairman Sara Widing said.
The three-person audience included a reporter and a SPACO cameraman taping for local cable TV.
The anemic turnout, however, apparently didn't translate to lack of interest. According to board members and resident Tenney Komar, who did show up, townspeople have been burning up social media lines, airing their views on recreational marijuana facilities in town.
The board also sent out a survey, using the results and other public input to help craft the articles, member Janet Tice said, including a public forum in November at which some people said yes, definitely, while others stood firm on the other side. A few were undecided.
"A significant number were in favor of a ban," Widing said, summing up the input. A Planning Board could advocate, one way or another, she said, but they chose not to, leaving it up to townspeople instead.
Thus the yes or no questions, including Article 6, which asks if the town should impose a 3-percent local tax in addition to property taxes on recreational marijuana facilities, should the town vote to accept them and if any takers surface, which they haven't so far.
"It was important to us to let the town speak," Widing said.
As for Komar, the lone resident who came to speak at the hearing, she's for it, she told the board.
"I'm here to encourage us to do it," she said, noting that she and others like her -- a semi-retired senior citizen -- would welcome a clean, quiet, tax-generating industry in town, like the cannabis farm North Andover recently vetoed. Housed in a 100,000 square foot building the proponent owns, it promised $100 million to the town over 20 years, she said, marveling that residents turned it down. "Maybe we have the space here," she said.
That said, she favors a farm versus a store. Outside or in, a growing facility is a good idea, she said. But not in a residential area.
With laws in place that legalized medical marijuana several years ago, Massachusetts joined a handful of other states that legalized recreational marijuana in 2016. It's still illegal at the Federal level.
Now, the question becomes whether recreational marijuana facilities are good or bad for communities like Shirley and like others across the Commonwealth, citizens here must decide whether to accept and regulate them or create bylaws to keep them out.
To that end, the Planning Board aims to give voters a virtual pot-pourri of choices, with six articles on the March 5 STM warrant, the first two of which require a 2/3 vote and set the stage for the rest, including proposed new bylaws, spelled out in detail over the next 25 pages.
Medical marijuana facilities are not at issue, board members said, since the town can't prohibit them under state law. It can, however, steer them toward certain areas via zoning and set parameters, rules and regulations, covered by the proposed new bylaws.
As to whether and where recreational marijuana facilities of any kind will be allowed in town -- that is, retail stores, distribution centers, warehouses, indoor or outdoor "farms" for cultivation of the plants for recreational use, or any other set-up in the same category -- that issue could be settled early on.
If Town Meeting decides the answer is no by saying yes to Article #1 -- which would "prohibit all types of recreational marijuana establishments" in town - a subsequent zoning article becomes moot.
Similar scenarios further along suggest an array of outcomes. But as "what ifs" stack up, there's navigation assistance at hand. The Planning Board aims to hand out a flow chart to put it all in perspective, showing what happens if an article passes or fails and the projected path in each case.
During discussion, Tice worried that the 2/3 benchmark for the first two questions could spell defeat for the bylaws, which she argued should be on the books anyway. Other members disagreed. If that's how the vote goes, so be it, they said. "Don't we want what they do?" John Gailey asked.
Oelfke added that if that happens, or if a legal challenge or election ballot cancels out Town Meeting decisions one way or the other, the Planning Board can re-introduce its proposed bylaws at a later date.
The work -- data gathering, research, hammering out language -- is already done, after all.
In the meantime, absent a bylaw specific to marijuana facilities, existing zoning would apply, Widing said. Meaning that, given space requirements and other factors, it would likely be directed to the commercial/industrial area on Lancaster Road, close to Rte 2.
Oelfke also said the articles will be posted on the town website once they are finalized and approved by the selectmen. He urged residents to read them before -- not at -- Special Town Meeting.
"It's a lot of material," he said.