Chester tables cannabis sales from town meeting vote

The Chester Selectboard met this past Wednesday, January 5.

CHESTER, Vt. – During their Jan. 5 meeting, the Chester Selectboard reviewed the warning for their upcoming town meeting and decided that the issue of cannabis sales would not be included as an article, instead wanting more time to gather information and to involve the town on weighing in before moving forward. The board also debated the proposed fencing at the public safety building.

With the Vermont state legislation having recently approved to give towns the authority to restructure town meetings remotely due to Covid-19 concerns, Chester’s town meeting will be formatted similarly to last year with a hybrid online and in-person informational meeting on Monday, Feb. 28, and all articles voted by Australian ballot on March 1.

The board reviewed the 17 articles currently outlined in their town meeting warning, which include the town budget and a list of allocations for various nonprofit organizations, and discussed whether to add a town approval for cannabis sales in this year’s list of articles. They decided that the information needed could not be gathered before the town meeting warning needed to be finalized.

Board Chairman Arne Jonynas acknowledged that the board had tabled the issue last year despite some interest on the subject throughout town, because the state had not yet worked out details on how the enterprise would run. Now that the state has answered many of those questions, he said it was appropriate to get the townspeople involved and let the town decide.

Board member Lee Gustafson, who opposed cannabis sales in Chester last year, said that the board needed to have an in-depth discussion and get feedback from the town before making a decision.

Although Jonynas agreed they had missed the window to include it in the town meeting, he did suggest that the board move quickly, because if someone wanted to move ahead with a business to sell cannabis products in town, there would be a lot of legal work and other preparations that would need to take place. “I think it would only be fair that we provide them enough time to establish their business.”

A member of the Zoom audience asked whether a resident could submit a petition to put an article to approve cannabis sales in Chester on the ballot for this year. Chester Town Manager Julie Hance confirmed that they could submit a petition that would require signatures of 5% of Chester voters. According to a Chester town administration official, that documentation is due on Thursday, Jan. 13 and would require approximately 130 signatures of registered Chester voters.

For the board, Hance will move forward by gathering information on financial benefits and required timing, and will reach out to Vermont League of Cities and Towns to see if they could have someone come and present information on the subject to the board at their next meeting.

As the budget review began, the issue of whether to spend $17,000 on a fence along one side of the public safety building to separate the property from the neighbors and from an abutting apartment complex, again drew varied opinions from the board.

Initially described as an attractive fence, the board asked that Hance get some information on a landscaping solution. In her discussions, the landscaper recommended adding shrubbery to add an attractive fencing. It came to light that for the proposed $17,000 budget, Chester Police Chief Rick Cloud had gotten costs for a black, chain-link, 6-foot fence that was priced out for that dollar amount, something that seemed to surprise everyone, including Hance.

Cloud outlined three reasons for needing the fence: security for parked vehicles at the building; dogs and other animals from the neighboring complex coming over during training exercises happening in the back field; and safety for a dart helicopter landing zone that may be added, necessary for keeping animals and kids from coming to see the vehicle land. Cloud also said that there had been two incidents where people had to be removed from the property.

Jonynas and board members Heather Chase and Leigh Dakin were largely against a fence as a solution, expressing concern that putting up a fence did not send a good message to the neighbors or the town. Chase also expressed concern that this was the first time she was hearing about the proposed helipad-landing site.

Gustafson suggested that $17,000 was a small price to pay for an insurance policy against safety issues. Board member Jeff Holden also agreed there was a need for a fence to make it a safer situation for training and members coming in responding to a call.

In the end, the board agreed to keep the $17,000 in the budget but not necessarily use it for fencing. Rather, they requested that they look at the larger landscaping plan and then they would decide next steps.

Hance gave the board the latest update on the budget. The deficit from this year stands at approximately $181,000 with cost overages on the public safety building accounting for approximately $140,000 of that number. Hance proposed taking that money from Chester’s flush fund balance, which has over $585,000 in it, and will leave a healthy $400,000 plus for future needs.

The budget this year is proposing a $61,461 increase over last year, which will result in about .015% impact on taxes. The final budget numbers will be approved on Jan. 19.

The board reviewed Andover’s contract for Ambulance and Fire services. They made minor adjustments and will review the updated version at their next meeting before sending it to Andover for their approval. There is an agreed upon coverage for services to Andover from Chester since Jan. 1 as the contract is going through final changes.

The next Chester Selectboard meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, Jan. 19 at 6 p.m. at the Chester town office or via Zoom.


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