West Tisbury voters approve zoning changes for marijuana dispensaries

Virginia Jones spoke to voters in West Tisbury, at their special meeting Tuesday. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Reflecting the town’s 80 percent approval of the new state medical marijuana law, voters at a special town meeting Tuesday evening approved a zoning bylaw change to allow marijuana dispensaries by special permit.

The overwhelming talley was 132-2. The calculation was the result of a quick count by town moderator Pat Gregory, after an hour of discussion, and it effectively ended the two-hour meeting, attended by 164 registered voters, at the West Tisbury School. Many non-voting observers were also present.

The vote reflected the widely held position argued by Virginia Jones of the town’s planning board, who prefaced her remarks by saying “in my wild-about hippy days, never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine that in 2013, and as a town elder, I would see an article on the town meeting floor about marijuana, albeit medical marijuana.”

Ms. Jones said approval of the bylaw will allow the town to regulate the dispensaries. Town counsel Ron Rappaport told his clients that the bylaw will probably give the town more control, but that there is great uncertainty about what latitude the town will have when the state decides to license some or all of the four Island dispensary applicants, two of them from West Tisbury.

An amendment proposed by the planning board, with the selectmen’s approval, to shift the special permitting authority for the dispensaries from the selectmen to the zoning board of appeals (ZBA) passed unanimously, with little discussion. Ms. Jones said that the ZBA is the town board that has the most experience with special permit issues.

Prefers Oak Bluffs

Chairman Richard Knabel of the selectmen, after a brief description of the state permitting process that allows up to five dispensaries in a county and requires one, said, “Logically there will be only one dispensary on the Vineyard. The state will decide where it will go.”

Susan Silk asked for clarification, “Just to be sure I heard you right, it really doesn’t matter how we vote, because in January the state will tell us what the reality is?”

“Regardless of what we do here tonight, whether the vote is yes or no, the state will still make the decision that it could be in West Tisbury or it could be in Oak Bluffs,” said Mr. Knabel. “Where we are if we vote no, I don’t know. It puts us in a nebulous area.”

Ms. Jones said the state has stringent requirements the applicants have to meet, including having property, or an agreement with a property owner, for a dispensary location. The choice of the applicant will determine the town it is in. “It is a very convoluted process. Do we know all the answers? Absolutely not,” she added.

There were laughs when Julia Humphreys said, “Given the fact that it is pretty obvious that we will have one dispensary on the Island. I think many of us would prefer that it is in Oak Bluffs. I certainly would.”

She added, “If we vote yes, would we be giving de facto support or non-opposition? I urge that we vote no, so they will have one less bit of ammunition in their applications, because I personally would rather see the dispensary in another town.”

“If we vote yes, will we have any control over the location?” Linda Hughes asked. “Mainly, what I am concerned about is the proximity to a school or a playground, or someplace with children. From what I understand, both of the applicants in West Tisbury are relatively close to the Charter School.”

She said she wanted to know how to vote in order to have some control over the location. Many others shared her concern.

“With a special permit, the ZBA is supposed to take into consideration the impact on the neighborhood and the suitability of the site,” Mr. Rappaport said. “There are public hearings and an appeal process, unlike a permitted use where all you have to do is meet the criteria.”

Following the discussion over the location, voters defeated a proposed amendment that would have restricted dispensaries to the light industrial zone by the airport.

Benoit Baldwin said that Conroy Apothecary, in the business district, sells more dangerous drugs than the marijuana dispensaries will.

Brian Smith brought the amendment debate to a close when he said, “It makes no sense to treat this like a strip club.”

After an hour’s discussion, the mood of the voters seemed to be in tune with the views of Susan Sanford, one of the two West Tisbury dispensary applicants whose initial request for the zoning change sparked the zoning change article, when she said that the special permit process will allow for community influence to ensure that the dispensaries will be restricted in size and will be patient-centered.

Up in smoke

A second marijuana-related article, this one prohibiting smoking marijuana in public was postponed by a majority vote after a lengthy debate between those who thought the law should be the same as the town bylaw that limits smoking tobacco and those who argued that the restriction on marijuana use should be more limiting.

Police chief Daniel Rossi said the intent of the amendment was to protect the public from the effects of secondhand marijuana smoke. The discussion swirled around the issues of consistency between the two bylaws and the rights of those who may need to smoke marijuana when they are not at home for medicinal reasons.

Voters approved an article, with only two dissenting votes, to require the town’s treasurer to be appointed by selectmen rather than elected, as is the case now. The change must be approved by a majority of voters at the town election in April to become law.

Town treasurer Kathy Logue, who said she may be the last elected treasurer in the state, presented the article as a needed change, enabling the town to create a job description that would meet the expanding complexities of the job. She said the elected position must be filled by a town resident and there may not always be a qualified person in town who would want the job.

A proposal to rescind the West Tisbury bylaw requiring a quorum of five percent of registered voters at town meetings was defeated by a large majority on a voice vote. Former selectman and county commissioner John Alley summed up the positions of people who spoke against the article.

“The present quorum only requires 123 of the current 2,468 voters. It is not an unreasonable number, but it is good government,” he said.