PEPPERELL — A decision on New England Craft Cultivators’ special permit application has been extended until the Planning Board’s meeting on June 21.
The question is whether to interpret the town’s marijuana bylaws to base it upon 20% of all liquor licenses allotted to the town or 20% of licenses that have already been issued. Pepperell has eight allotted liquor licenses for off-site consumption and has only issued four.
Brian R. Falk of Mirick O’Connell Attorneys at Law concurred with the earlier opinion of the town’s external counsel, KP Law.
“In short, I find that the most reasonable interpretation of the Pepperell zoning bylaw allows for one retail marijuana establishment in Pepperell based upon the number of licenses issued for the retail sale of alcoholic beverages in Pepperell,” Falk wrote in a letter to the board. Falk added the question “has never been addressed by Massachusetts courts.”
New England Craft Cultivators, represented by Courtney Elgart of Sullivan & Triggs, have argued that the number of licenses Pepperell could issue was based on 20% of the total number of liquor licenses available.
Co-CEO Wes Ritchie requested the extension after hearing the letter from Falk read at this week’s Planning Board meeting. The majority LGBTQ-owned company has been paying rent on the former Paugus Plaza at 112-114 Main St. for the past year and a half and has received a provisional license from the Cannabis Control Commission.
Ritchie told the Nashoba Valley Voice that the company remains optimistic despite the challenges.
“We’re still looking forward to opening a store in Pepperell. The community has largely been supportive of us over and over again,” Ritchie said. “We’re disappointed that the local process has been so ambiguous and challenging but this is a new industry and we think what we’re bringing is different and special. We’re optimistic that at the end of the day we’ll open a store there in 2021.”
The legal opinion of Falk and KP Law was also shared by Valerio Romano of VGR Law Firm, who represents Uma Flowers LLC, another marijuana retailer seeking a special permit for recreational marijuana sales in town.
Romano told the Nashoba Valley Voice that his concern stems from voters at the March 13 special town meeting being told that the town’s bylaw only allowed for one business to open. He said that Pepperell has been “great” to work with at all levels but is also concerned about how the Planning Board’s decision may reflect on his client and the industry.
“I’ve never opposed another marijuana business anywhere, ever,” Romano said. “In this case, the town had a special town meeting telling the voters you need to come in and vote above one.”
As the board discussed the letter from Falk, they appeared split on how to proceed.
Joyce Morrow spoke in favor of interpreting the bylaw to be based upon the town’s total number of allotted licenses. Morrow pointed to how the number of off-site liquor stores has changed since New England Craft Cultivators first applied for their special permit.
“We had three existing package stores in Pepperell. We now have four. Who’s to say that in several months we may not have additional,” Morrow said.
Morrow’s interpretation was shared by Jennifer Gingras, an associate member on the board.
“If the number was based on 20% of the number of in-use, off-premise, liquor licenses in Pepperell the number would fluctuate. If a liquor store opened the number would go up, if one closed the number would go down. It’s more logical and practical for the 20% to be based upon the number of off-premise liquor licenses to the town,” Gingras said.
Joseph Lonergan took the side of interpreting the bylaw to be based upon 20% of licenses that have been issued.
“I don’t look at it as an interpretation but an intent when the bylaw was written, that it is set at one. My suggestion would be that it be brought back to a true town meeting and let the town vote on it,” Lonergan said, suggesting that with COVID-19 restrictions being lifted there could be a better turnout for a town meeting.
Albert Patenaude concurred with Lonergan.
“I think when we look back we had always outlined one with the possibility of what happens when the second comes in, not expecting it to happen all at once. I figured we’d grow into that position rather than being in that position right up front,” Patenaude said.
Planning Board Advisor Lisa Davis stated that amendments to officially set the number at both one and two did not pass the special town meeting on March 13. Charles Walkovich, who served as an interim chair for both marijuana related agenda items in place of Casey Campetti, did not indicate any personal thoughts on the matter.
For New England Craft Cultivator’s special permit to be approved, Walkovich, Patenaude, Lonergan, and Morrow would all need to vote yes.