Guest column Marc Warner: Take care not to ‘stink up’ Northampton in pot funds race

  • The exterior of New England Treatment Access, or NETA, is shown last June in Northampton. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 2/25/2019 9:32:40 PM

Northampton has shown pretty good sense these last few years by not joining other cities in the quest for sudden windfalls.

Let Springfield, Holyoke, and Palmer vie for the one western Massachusetts casino. We have higher graces.

We also took a sensible pass on a bid for Amazon’s second headquarters. Boston seems to have had a legitimate shot, but the other 24 Massachusetts proposals were starry-eyed wastes of time. Seriously Gardner: your charms are just not enough to overcome those 63 miles to Logan.

Now, there’s a new source of dangling dollar signs — marijuana — and this time Northampton is leading the civic charge. Mayor David Narkewicz was thrilled to be the first customer last November when New England Treatment Access opened as the first recreational marijuana store in the eastern U.S. Why not? He avoided the usual hourslong line to get in the front door. More importantly, the city received an ongoing budget boost of 3 percent on all of NETA revenue.

This, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. The mayor has promoted Northampton as a welcoming place to start your marijuana business, and the promotion has succeeded. The mayor has signed 15 municipal host agreements with 11 marijuana businesses (some companies have multiple agreements). Most of these are for general retail stores, three are for medical treatment centers and four are for marijuana cultivation and processing facilities. All will pay 3 percent on sales revenue to the city.

Mayor, this is not a good deal. You see the sudden windfall of that 3 percent tax, but you’ve exaggerated the rest of our delight in becoming the cannabis capital of the Northeast, and you’ve ignored the negative effect these developments — particularly the marijuana cultivation and processing — will have on our quality of life. Here, for example is what Bart Axelman told the Denver Post about the marijuana growing operation that moved near his Colorado home: “Six months ago our neighborhood smelled like a neighborhood, and now it smells like someone is holding up a package of marijuana to your face.”

Or consider this quote from Grace Owen-Smeltzer about a medical marijuana cultivation facility near her home in York, Maine: “That smell — it’s a skunk smell. It gets in my house and can take over. In the summertime, during barbecue season, the windows are open or you’re outside enjoying a meal, and it stinks. You can’t enjoy your own property.”

Similar complaints are popping up anywhere in the country that has legalized marijuana cultivation either outdoors or in indoor facilities.

Is this our destiny too?

Let me suggest an alternative course for Northampton:

■ City policy makers and planners should make themselves aware of the experiences elsewhere.

■Put a moratorium on any further host agreements with marijuana businesses.

■Modify § 111-5, Northampton’s “right to farm” declaration to exclude marijuana cultivation or processing. Northampton has declared in this section that the negative impacts of farming, including “noise, odors, dust, and fumes,” are “more than offset by the benefits of farming to the neighborhood, community, and society in general.” I suggest that this trade-off does not apply to marijuana, and that marijuana was in any case not legal to produce at the time the city adopted this rule. For these reasons, the city should explicitly — and quickly — exempt marijuana from its right to farm declaration, and it should make any other changes to support this in the zoning code.

■Affirm the need for marijuana cultivation and processing facilities to comply with § 350-12.1, environmental performance standards.

■Require the highest form of active odor abatement as a requirement for a building and use permit. The city should only issue a building permit for indoor marijuana cultivation if it includes measures proven to be effective in mitigating the smells outside the building. My quick internet research suggests that the most effective odor abatement is with a charcoal filtration system and a building facility kept at a slight vacuum condition.

The city should ensure that no marijuana cultivation facility can operate unless it implements and maintains this type of system, appropriately-sized for the planned level of cultivation. Mayor and councilors, we have a wonderful city and a fine quality of life. Let’s not stink it up.

Marc Warner is a Northampton resident.

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