Trustees consider adding retail cannabis question to village meeting ballot

BELLOWS FALLS, Vt. – On Tuesday, April 13, the Trustees deliberated on the cannabis retail option in Bellows Falls and whether to add the vote to the annual Village Meeting May 17. Village President Deborah Wright posed the question to the board. “Do we want an article on the ballot asking the public if they do or do not want retail [cannabis]?”

Wade Masure said his feeling was no. He added that the legislation was unclear, but he understood that if the community takes no action, the state would okay it in Bellows Falls.

Jim McAuliffe said, “I’m really ambivalent. If people thought it would be useful as a proxy for the deliberations of the Selectboard, I wouldn’t be opposed.”

Stefan Golec agreed with McAuliffe and said, “Let’s get a public opinion.”

Wright said, “We can’t make that decision; it has to be the taxpayers.”

Jeff Dunbar was not opposed to cannabis retail but felt more discussion was needed.

Wright explained that Bellows Falls is the business district of Rockingham with a majority of the voters and asked, “Do voters want to see retail marijuana stores in our community?”

She was concerned that if voters were opposed and did not vote “no,” the village would not have that opportunity in the future. She added, “I don’t necessarily see all the opportunities that Brattleboro sees [of retail cannabis]. To me it’s very premature.”

She explained even if Bellows Falls voted no, as a separate municipality, Saxtons River or Rockingham could pass retail outside the village of Bellows Falls.

Laura Schairbaum of Greater Falls Connections said the organization supported the healthy development of youth and families while reducing the impacts of substance abuse. They would provide community support and technical assistance.

She explained the State of Vermont Cannabis Control Board has not been formed yet and stated this was “difficult for the community to understand, in my opinion, the details of what they would be voting on… We feel that there’s no rush and would support information sessions.”

In March, at least 27 towns added the vote to their Town Meeting ballots with Lyndon, Newport, and Richmond voting against it. The other 23 municipalites, including Brattleboro, Bennington, and Windsor, voted in favor of retail cannabis.

The issue was discussed at the March 30 Joint Board with the Trustees and the Selectboard. At that time, Resident Deborah Fox voiced her support for retail cannabis in Bellows Falls and said, “I really think we need to keep the conversation open and alive in bringing this type of business to the village.” In 2019, she started VT420Tours –a historical and educational walking tour in the village centered around cannabis and CBD – which is compliant with state and local laws and attracts visitors from Massachusetts and Connecticut.

Fox said she spoke to 253 Farmacy Recreational Marijuana Dispensary in Turner Falls, Mass., and learned that a third of their customers were from Vermont. “We are missing a revenue opportunity… We know this is a thing of the future.” She requested the village look at it realistically and felt it was important to educate young folks.

Fox added, “Being in the tourism industry, I would encourage [this] as a viable tax revenue stream for Bellows Falls.”

Schairbaum said, “We’d be happy to work with [Fox] and local businesses who were establishing themselves,” and encouraged the town to have an intentional process around considerations on retail cannabis.

Deb Witkus of GFC supported cannabis conversations and said, “We do not believe in fear-mongering… We acknowledge that there are health benefits. We would love to offer our expertise with youth substance prevention and addressing the mental health challenges and generational trauma.”

At their April 13 meeting, the Trustees decided not to put the question of retail cannabis on the annual meeting ballot in 2021.

The annual village meeting is scheduled for Monday, May 17 with elections Tuesday, May 18. The next Trustee meeting is Tuesday, April 27 at 6 p.m. in the Lower Theater of the Bellows Falls Opera House.

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