Selectboard punts on retail pot

Proposition rejected for Town Meeting Day ballot

By Jason Starr

Observer staff

The Williston Selectboard declined a citizen request Tuesday to allow voters to decide whether the town should allow retail cannabis sales. 

The passage last year of Act 164 legalized retail cannabis in Vermont and put the onus on towns to opt in to host cannabis stores by citizen vote. Tim Fair, a Williston resident whose law firm advises aspiring cannabis retailers, asked the board to put the question on the Town Meeting Day ballot in March. The board is finalizing the ballot this month. 

Typically, citizen requests for ballot items require the signatures of 5 percent of registered voters. Fair asked the board to waive that requirement due to the coronavirus pandemic. But that became moot when, in an informal vote, board members Ted Kenney, Joy Limoge, Gordon St. Hilaire and Terry Macaig all said they are against the ballot question. Board member Jeff Fehrs acknowledged mixed feelings on the issue. 

Fair believes Tuesday’s no vote will prevent Williston from having retail cannabis for the foreseeable future. Entrepreneurs interested in applying for one of the estimated 30 state retail licenses that will become available next year will be focused on municipalities that have already opted in, he said. There may be no additional need for licenses beyond the initial set.

The first retail stores in Vermont are scheduled to open in May of 2022. A state cannabis commission will be convened before that to consider license applications and fine tune regulations.

Kenney said it would be premature for the town to opt in to retail cannabis before it can create specific zoning regulations for the industry. Planning Director Matt Boulanger is working with the planning commission to craft cannabis-specific regulations that would prescribe where stores can be located, how many can be in an area and what signs can look like. Without specific regulations, pot sales would be allowed where other retail sales are — in the village, at Taft Corners and in the industrial zoning district. 

“We don’t have the zoning,” Kenney said during Tuesday’s board meeting.

“But you will,” Fair replied.

“It’s a big decision, and I think the decision needs to be made with as much information as we (can get),” Kenney said. 

“I would want to know more,” St. Hilaire agreed.

Fair said the Taft Corners area is an ideal spot for retail cannabis. Sales would bolster the town’s local sales tax revenue at a time when the large retail chains that populate the area face a challenging future, he argued. 

“Big box retail is on its way out,” Fair said. “Everybody knows that … How much longer is Bed Bath and Beyond going to be able to last?”

Taft Corners’ proximity to Interstate 89 would attract out-of-state visitors to the stores and its distance from schools and public parks would mitigate any downside to pot retailing, he said.

“This town is so uniquely situated to maximize the positives of retail cannabis and minimize the negatives,” he said. “We stand to gain a lot more than we stand to lose.”

Macaig said the board could consider placing the question to voters in March 2022, but by that time, Fair said, retail cannabis licensees will be focused on other areas. He said the industry will like be concentrated around the ski resorts of Lamoille and Washington counties.