Chester Board continues to discuss retail cannabis ahead of vote

The Chester Selectboard discussed an article on retail cannabis that was pushed onto the ballot by a petition on Feb. 2. Photo provided

CHESTER, Vt. – Despite the Chester Selectboard’s decision not to put the retail cannabis opt-in vote on the town meeting ballot, the board once again discussed the issue in their Feb. 2 meeting after a local resident petitioned for its inclusion.

Local resident Scott Blair, owner of Southern Pie Café, circulated a petition amongst Chester residents and garnered the required five percent of signatures in order to force the issue onto the ballot for this year.

According to Board Chair Arne Jonynas, the board now wants to get as much information as possible out there before the vote so Chester residents can make an informed decision.

Jonynas said that currently there is no tax benefit to the town for opting-in, although the Vermont legislature is reviewing a bill that could change that.

He also pointed to the fact that the town cannot make any special laws, rules, or regulations concerning the placement of a cannabis dispensary other than the state’s restriction requiring that it can’t be placed within 500 feet of a school.

Board members Jeff Holden and Lee Gustafson both asked about facility location, questioning whether other youth congregating areas also posed a restriction and why the distance did not match that of alcohol sales. Town Manager Julie Hance said she would find out those answers in time for their next meeting.

Holden and Gustafson also brought up issues about the growing of cannabis, including energy, pesticide use, and impact on ground water. Jonynas clarified that the vote is only to determine the sale of cannabis in Chester, and that growing is allowed and will not be regulated or impacted by the town. He also suggested that since Vermont is a farm state that encourages small farms, growers would likely be regulated the same as all agriculture.

Chester resident Robert Nied suggested that there was no urgency to approve the issue now, other than by Blair and the small percentage that signed the petition, and was concerned there was no data to look at and gauge how it would impact a town like Chester. He also said that the town would have less control over cannabis than it does alcohol.

Gustafson stated that other states, ones with a history in selling cannabis, were now dealing with unforeseen repercussions of their decision.

Chester resident Tim Roper refuted claims by both Nied and Gustafson citing information from the state cannabis control board which allows towns to set up a local cannabis control commission which can exert control over cannabis licensing, including enforcing zoning bylaws, addressing any public nuisance complaints, and even revoking a license.

He also added that, after doing some research, “I couldn’t find a single article where a municipality said they wished they had not allowed retail cannabis.” He went on to suggest that if someone was going to cite instances on a particular point, that they provide some documentation to support it.

Andi Goldman, a Ludlow resident who has worked in legal cannabis for many years and who was behind the recent retail cannabis effort in Ludlow, said she agreed with Roper and suggested they look to Massachusetts and Maine for feedback. “Not only is there not buyer’s remorse in Massachusetts, but the highest officer for cannabis control has said that all of the fear mongering did not actually realize itself.” She added that it would increase business throughout the rest of the town, keeping tourists from simply driving through Chester.

When asked on why a Ludlow resident was weighing in on the issue, Goldman said that since Ludlow had passed on opting-in, she was committed to providing education to surrounding towns, and if the measure passed in Chester, she would come to Chester to purchase.

Gustafson responded to Roper and Goldman’s statements, saying that he had provided the board a document, titled “Why Marijuana Retail Sales are Not Good for Chester,” prior to their last meeting, which had links that supported his point on unforeseen repercussions.

Jonynas said the board would have the issue again on their next agenda and find out the answers to questions raised at this meeting and discuss further. “I think it will help guide our town when it comes up to vote. [It’s] up to people to decide where they want to go with this issue,” he said.

The next Chester Selectboard meeting in scheduled for Wednesday, Feb. 16 at 6 p.m. in person at Chester Town Office or via Zoom.

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