April 20, 2014

Hashing out medical marijuana dispensary restrictions

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By Stephanie Choate

Observer staff

While still torn about the wisdom of allowing medical marijuana dispensaries in town, the Williston Planning Commission worked to hammer out parameters for potential dispensaries on Tuesday.

A new subchapter in the town’s bylaws would limit dispensaries to a small slice of town—the industrial zoning district west, which is located on the northwestern edge of town and accommodates industrial and some commercial uses.

Additional requirements would include: a discretionary permit through the DRB; a security plan; hours of operation limited to 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.; and severely limited signage that would allow text only, no pictures or graphics.

In February, the Selectboard voted 4-1 to instruct the Planning Commission to develop regulations for potential dispensaries in town.

After an equally split Planning Commission worked in March to develop restrictions, Town Planner Matt Boulanger drafted the zoning changes discussed at the board’s April 16 meeting.

“I’m just struggling with this issue of ‘where’s the public good for including a medical marijuana dispensary in the town of Williston?’” said commission member Paul Laska on Tuesday.

Boulanger suggested that, regardless of the question of public good, the town should either allow or prohibit dispensaries, but not leave the question in its current state, where dispensaries are not addressed at all.

“The state has allowed a use of land that is not currently addressed by our zoning bylaw,” he said. “It doesn’t give us tenable position if someone came in today and says ‘I’m going to stick one of these in Williston.’”

Specifically addressing medical marijuana dispensaries in the zoning bylaws also moves the process into the public process, allowing for extensive resident input at public meetings.

The Planning Commission members present—just four—opted to move forward with defining the regulations, then have another “up or down” vote when more members are present.

Medical marijuana dispensaries must follow the restrictive state guidelines, and state law allows towns to further restrict the dispensaries—essentially, anything up to complete prohibition is fair game.

Under current state law, up to four dispensaries can operate in Vermont at any one time. The dispensaries must be not for profit, must have a limit of 1,000 patients and cannot be located within 1,000 feet of a daycare or school, among other regulations. So far, plans for a dispensary in Burlington are underway; another proposed dispensary in Waterbury has reportedly fallen through.

State guidelines already require that dispensaries be inspected at least once a year by authorities, and that authorities have the right to spontaneously inspect the premises at any time.

Planning Commission members suggested adding that any inspections, infractions, incidents and/or police calls be reported to the town.

“That would be a way of making approval conditional on continued orderly operation,” Boulanger said.

The proposed regulations also state that dispensaries must follow state laws as passed in 2012—meaning that if Vermont loosened it’s regulations in the future, they would not get looser in Williston, though Boulanger noted that section might have to go through the town’s lawyers.

Several Planning Commission and Selectboard members expressed a desire to take a stance on medical marijuana dispensaries, since laws could change in the future.

On Tuesday, the Vermont House approved a bill that would decriminalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana. The bill is now headed to the Vermont Senate.

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