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Town weeds out medical marijuana dispensary location

By Luke Baynes

Observer staff

It was a dark and stormy night at the Williston Planning and Zoning office on Tuesday.

As the building’s lights flickered on and off and generator fumes wafted into the night air, Williston Planning Commission members Jake Mathon and Meghan Cope soldiered on through a meeting that sorely lacked a quorum.

Dispensing with a planned agenda that included discussion of recreation and school impact fee ordinances, talk instead turned to medical marijuana dispensaries.

The Planning Commission previously addressed the marijuana question at its Aug. 7 meeting, following a communication from the Vermont League of Cities and Towns to Williston officials, which requested a formal town position on the possible location of a dispensary within town limits. At that time, the commission asked Planning and Zoning Department staff to prepare a map showing feasible locations for a potential dispensary.

Although current state law permits a maximum of four dispensaries operating in the state at any one time, it also stipulates that dispensaries cannot be located within 1,000 feet of schools or child care facilities. At the same time, it allows towns to specifically prohibit dispensaries, regardless of rationale.

As Mathon pored over a map prepared for Tuesday’s meeting by Williston Senior Planner Matt Boulanger, he proposed that the marijuana dispensary question is moot, due to the scarcity of potential locations in town.

“It doesn’t leave a whole lot of options, does it?” Mathon asked.

Adding to Mathon’s skepticism is the fact that the Vermont Department of Public Safety has granted conditional approval to two planned dispensaries in Burlington and Waterbury, according to a Sept. 12 report from The Associated Press.

Boulanger played the devil’s advocate, offering the hypothetical scenario that future state marijuana laws might become more lenient.

“What if the legislature comes back in a year or two and expands this, and says that now there can be more than four clinics in the state?” Boulanger posed.

Williston Director of Planning and Zoning Ken Belliveau said that if the town decides to assert its jurisdiction on marijuana dispensaries, it will likely require the input of the Development Review Board.

“It seems to me that if the town takes a stance on the issue, what it means is that somebody would have to come in and get a permit from the town before they could really do anything, especially if you said you had to get a discretionary permit, which would mean it would have to go to the DRB and would need a public hearing,” Belliveau said.

Cope expressed an indication of interest for that course of action.

“I like the discretionary permit piece, because it opens it up to a debate,” Cope said. “Essentially, if there’s a public hearing required, it’s very transparent.”

However, because of the absence of a quorum, no action could be taken on the matter.

The Planning Commission, a seven-member body under town charter, currently has five active members. Joel Klein, who recently submitted his formal resignation, hadn’t attended a meeting in more than seven months.

Belliveau made an open appeal for membership, suggesting that the Planning Commission, which requires four affirmative votes to approve a motion, is a less efficient body with only five members.

“You can’t get business done if there’s any dissent at all, if you don’t have enough people on the board,” Belliveau said, “and with too small of a board, I think you’re not likely to get as representative a sample of public opinion in the town.”