Editorial: Amherst Town Meeting should adopt marijuana regulations

  • Amherst Town Hall GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Friday, November 03, 2017

We urge Amherst Town Meeting this month to adopt proposals regulating the recreational marijuana industry, approve a study with Pelham of regionalizing elementary schools, and authorize money to begin improvements at North Amherst Library.

Those are among the 17 articles on the warrant for the town’s 240-member representative Town Meeting that convenes at 7 p.m. Monday in the Amherst Regional Middle School auditorium. The meeting will be held over several nights and is expected to last at least through mid-November.

Town Meeting will consider five marijuana-related articles. Town officials support four of the measures, but declined to back a moratorium on sales in Amherst until Jan. 1, 2019. Recreational marijuana sales will be legal in Massachusetts beginning July 1.

We concur with the recommendations to cap retail marijuana shops at eight, amend zoning to create a new use category guiding town planners on where they are permitted, impose a local option tax and prohibit the consumption of all forms of marijuana in municipal spaces.

We also agree that a moratorium would run counter to the wishes of an overwhelming majority of Amherst voters, 74 percent of whom favored the ballot question last year that legalized recreational marijuana. Town officials say they also are uncertain about how a moratorium might impact the four dispensaries already registered to distribute marijuana for medical purposes.

Furthermore, a moratorium would deprive Amherst of at least six months of revenue from the recommended 3 percent local tax, the highest rate allowed by the state. Town officials hope that money pays for additional health and safety costs associated with legalizing marijuana.

The Select Board recommends limiting recreational marijuana retailers to eight, enough so that shops could be located downtown and in village centers. The number is lower than the 11 package store licenses in Amherst.

It also makes sense to ban the consumption of marijuana in any form — including edibles and vaporizers — from public spaces such as streets, sidewalks and municipal parks, similar to an existing town bylaw regulating tobacco use.

The Planning Board has crafted a reasonable new category in the town’s zoning bylaws to govern the location of marijuana shops, including allowing them in mixed-use buildings with residences such as Kendrick Place at the corner of Triangle and East Pleasant streets.

That package of regulations should meet the town’s goal of “a safe and deliberate implementation of the recreational marijuana law.”

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The school regionalization planning committee already was authorized by Pelham voters at a special Town Meeting in October.

If Amherst Town meeting concurs, the committee would study the benefits of combining the towns’ elementary schools in one district. The towns already share a school superintendent and other central office services, and their students in Grades 7 to 12 — as well as those from Leverett and Shutesbury — attend regional schools in Amherst.

Amherst School Committee Chairwoman Phoebe Hazzard said the potential benefits of regionalized elementary schools include $240,000 in annual state reimbursements for transportation.

That revenue and other potential savings are reason to approve Article 10 authorizing the study, which does not commit the town to a final decision on the new arrangement with Pelham. If the planning committee recommends regionalization, each town — as well as the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education — would have to approve the final agreement.

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We also urge Town Meeting to approve Article 14, which would authorize $50,000 for an architect to design improvements to the North Amherst Library. It was placed on the warrant through a petition sponsored by Friends of the North Amherst Library, a group that formed during the summer.

The North Amherst Library, built in 1893, lacks a public bathroom and is not accessible to handicapped people. Among the proposals the Friends want considered are a new entrance at the rear of the library and an elevator that would make the entire building accessible.

With the $35.6 million proposal to expand and renovate the downtown Jones Library now on hold indefinitely after it was placed on a waiting list for a state grant, it is time to focus on more modest repairs at all the town’s libraries. The North Amherst Library is a good place to start.