PEPPERELL — The future of New England Craft Cultivators in Pepperell may be decided on May 17, as the Planning Board looks to clarify its bylaws on retail marijuana dispensaries.
The board took up debate on its bylaw allotting the number of recreational marijuana shops during their meeting on Monday. Town Administrator Andrew McLean said the bylaw is a result of town meeting voters rejecting a citizens’ petition that would have increased the number to two and an amendment which would have officially set the number at one.
“After the town meeting in March, the Planning Board, Select Board, myself were all left with the same issue. The town meeting did not clarify the definition,” McLean said.
On Dec. 21, 2020, the Planning Board approved a special permit for Uma Flowers LLC at 2 Tarbell St.
New England Craft Cultivators Co-CEO Wes Ritchie told the Planning Board that the company had been paying rent on property for the past year and a half and was preparing to open. The company would occupy the former Paugus Plaza at 112-114 Main St. In 2020, they received a provisional license.
“The town was very clear from the beginning of the process that they had two retail licenses to give,” Ritchie told the Nashoba Valley Voice this week. “They were going to talk to two companies at a time and third companies need not apply unless one of the two companies drop out.”
Ritchie also told the Voice they had begun identifying staff members and people in Pepperell who are excited to work for them. He said it has been frustrating having to let them know of the delays and the uncertainty of the outcome.
Planning Board member Charles Walkovich said the board consulted with the city of Worcester, which has a similar bylaw, as well as town counsel, and the Cannabis Control Commission to seek guidance. Under Worcester’s interpretation, the town would be allowed two licenses, while the town counsel and Cannabis Control Commission indicate that one would be allowed.
Valerio Romano, an attorney for VGR Law Firm and legal representative for Uma Flowers LLC, said while he supports cannabis businesses opening, the town has made it clear to voters there is only one license available, including at the March 13 town meeting.
“You shouldn’t tell the voters something and then have a local board act in contravention of what you told them,” Romano said.
Romano said that he encountered a similar situation in Sturbridge and was told by KP Law that the methodology of 20% of the actually issued offsite package stores licenses was used there, not the number of offsite package stores allocated to the town, as New England Craft Cultivators suggests.
Additionally, Romano argued that having two dispensaries in the town of Pepperell would not necessarily equal more revenue for the town.
“All you’re doing is dividing that six points off the top into two cannabis dispensaries. You’re not creating 12 points,” Romano said. “You only have one universe of people who are going to come to Pepperell to buy cannabis. What you’re doing is you’re creating the same amount of revenue but you’re doubling the administrative overhead for Pepperell who will collect that revenue.”
Courtney Elgart, an attorney for Sullivan & Triggs, was hired by New England Craft Cultivators to review the licensing process. She argued the Cannabis Control Commission does not have specific guidance on how municipalities should issue licenses and that tying the number of retail marijuana stores to package stores bound together two unrelated industries.
Coupled with Pepperell’s support for the cannabis legalization ballot measure, Elgart believes that following Worcester’s model and issuing two licenses would be reasonable.
“For a community like Pepperell where the voters supported legalization, the state law explicitly restrains the ability of a local government to limit cannabis licenses without going back to the voters,” Elgart said.
The Planning Board agreed to use its legal budget funds to have a third party attorney interpret the bylaw.
The Planning Board will meet again on May 17 and revisit the bylaw question. If the number of licenses is not set at two, New England Craft Cultivators will have the opportunity to withdraw its application without prejudice or have it denied by the board. If it is denied, it would be two years before they are allowed to re-apply.
Ritchie remains optimistic about the situation and says the company believes it can get a yes vote.
“We love Pepperell and we really want to be there. We’re committed to doing everything we can to be there,” Ritchie said.