Chester tables cannabis discussions, continues with solar project and police assessment

At the Chester Selectboard’s April 20 meeting, the board opted to wait for VLCT training to clarify what authority a Local Cannabis Control Board has to address nuisance ordinances. Photo provided

CHESTER, Vt. – At the Chester Selectboard’s April 20 meeting, the issue of the retail cannabis sales loomed large again, both in terms of decisions on the Local Cannabis Control Commission, and also in discussing nuisance ordinances and how they might, or might not, be applied to possible retail cannabis locations in town. The board also agreed to begin the process of purchasing the solar field, and Town Manager Julie Hance discussed an upcoming police assessment and public safety community forum.

The board made a few more concrete decisions about the structure of the Local Cannabis Control Commission, determining that two board members, Lee Gustafson and Ben Whalen, would participate with an established term length of one year, and three community members would be selected and serve for three-year terms.

To date, there have been four community members who have put forth their names for consideration. The board will schedule interviews at the next selectboard meeting to decide which of those candidates will serve on the commission. Any other interested community members who wish be considered for the Local Cannabis Control Commission should submit a letter of interest to the Town Manager. The board will also formally adopt a resolution with specifics on the commission, using a sample resolution as a guide, at the next board meeting.

According to Board Chair Arne Jonynas, they received updated guidance from the State Cannabis Control Board, although town commission authority still seemed limited and he suggested it was specifically made that way by the state so that cannabis retail establishments would not be treated differently than other retail establishments.

As the board turned to the topic of public nuisance ordinances, they referenced a wide array of samples from other towns included in their packet and covered a wide range of issues including noise, some as specific as singing or whistling, and ranging to smells and parking.

In kicking off the subject, Jonynas asked the board what their goal was and if they were trying to address a current problem or a future problem.

Board member Lee Gustafson, who has been openly opposed to retail cannabis in Chester, said that if they have a nuisance ordinance in place, it allows the board to be discriminating in what kind of businesses operate, specifically mentioning the green and downtown area.

“The point is that if we’re not thinking about how do we want to present ourselves as the town of Chester to people either visiting or thinking about moving here, then we could end up with any downtown area looking in ways that we don’t want it to look. And so, not singling out any specific type of business or activity, I think we need to be thoughtful about how we’re going to maintain the character, the wholesome character, of the downtown area or the green area for the future.”

Board member Ben Whalen said, “If we’re talking about cannabis and we’re concerned about locations, I feel that that’s more of a zoning issue than ordinance.” Later in the discussion, Whalen also voiced caution over unintended consequences from ordinances.

Gustafson countered that the town can’t address issues through zoning and that that’s the problem.

Jonynas added his concern about attempting to target cannabis retail specifically, saying, “One thing we have to be extremely careful of is that we don’t single out cannabis in this, in any which way whatsoever…the state has made it very clear on that. I think we should make sure we’re clear on that also.” He also suggested it could result in a lawsuit and that anything the board would impose as far as nuisance ordinances would have to be extremely general and apply to all retail, all people, and all citizens.

Gustafson pushed back on Jonynas’ statement however, saying the whole reason they were discussing nuisance ordinances was because of the cannabis issue, and if they can’t discuss the issue for fear of a lawsuit it was “kicking the stool out from under us.” He went on to ask, as a representative of the Town of Chester, how can he represent those who share his viewpoint if they don’t talk about it?

He stated, “You all know [my] feelings. Did it pass, yes. Did I want it to pass, no, of course not. But does that mean I can’t voice my opinion anymore? No. I should be able to.”

Town Manager Julie Hance suggested the board wait until they were able to hear from the Vermont League of Cities and Towns who would be providing training soon to help advise towns on the issue.

Jonynas agreed, saying the board would let the issue of nuisance ordinances slide for a while and see what the VLCT comes back with.

The board approved Hance to begin the process of exercising the purchase option of the solar field. Upon her signature, the town has 120 days to get an appraisal of property, and then another 30 days if they decide to back out of the decision.

Several details still need to be gathered in addition to the appraisal, such as how much power the town currently uses, and whether the town would still be obligated to provide two towns with power, renewing their existing contracts.

Gustafson, who has expertise on the subject, said that in his initial investigation into the solar project, it worked well, that the structure of the array made for more economical maintenance. He also said the power production was well above his expectations.

Town Resident Leslie Thorsen spoke at the beginning of the board meeting, urging the board to put the topic of establishing a police advisory committee back on the agenda. In response to Thorsen’s concerns, Hance outlined recent efforts to move a police department assessment forward and suggested it was wise to wait until that assessment was done so they would be clear on the parameters of what the committee would accomplish.

Hance has scheduled Jim Baker, who has extensive experience, to begin the process of a police department assessment at the end of May. Part of the assessment process will involve community input, with a public safety community forum scheduled for May 26 at 7 p.m. at the public safety building. Citizens will be asked to talk about what they would like to see from all public safety services including fire, ambulance, and police. Hance said this would be one of many, and that she was planning to do this quarterly for a year.

The next Chester Selectboard meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, May 4 at 6 p.m. at the Chester Town Office and via Zoom.

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