Athol Daily News – Athol Selectboard okays 13-article Town Meeting warrant

Published: 9/28/2021 1:45:20 PM

Modified: 9/28/2021 1:45:21 PM

ATHOL – The Selectboard, at its Sept. 22 meeting, gave its stamp of approval to all 13 articles that will appear on the warrant for the Oct. 18 fall Town Meeting. Most of the items deal with zoning issues, but others deal with the creation of a rent control board and disposal of some town-owned properties.

The establishment of a rent control board is, in fact, the first article voters will wrestle with.

“This article,” explained board Chair Rebecca Bialecki, “came at the request of many of our residents who are at Millers Woods and River Bend.”

Millers Woods and River Bend is a manufactured home development just off Daniel Shays Highway/Route 202 consisting of just over 140 lots. The issue of rent control arose after the owner of the development, Hometown America, raised a number of rents — while lowering others — in an attempt to comply with a state Supreme Judicial Court ruling handed down in November of last year stating that all homeowners in such developments must be charged the same rent.

While residents own the homes in which they live, they rent the lots and the cement pads on which their homes sit.

Creation of a rent control board must be approved by the state Legislature.

Article 2 asks voters to approve the discontinuation of a portion of Thrower Road. Members of the 25 Sportsmen Club have asked that the road be discontinued so that it may be allowed to assume responsibility for maintenance of a portion of the dirt section of Thrower Road leading to the club. Club officials hope to construct barriers to keep recreational vehicles — such as dirt bikes and four-wheelers — from tearing up the property around the clubhouse and around the existing gate.

Article 11 is, as described at the meeting by Athol Planning and Development Director Eric Smith, “a complete re-write to our existing marijuana provisions, because — as most of you know — in 2012 state law legalized medical marijuana.” As a result, Athol adopted rules for medical marijuana dispensaries, along with performance standards, and which required applicants to go before the Zoning Board of Appeals.

In 2016 voters in Athol approved legalization of recreational marijuana businesses and subsequently established regulations for licensed retail marijuana establishments, over which the Board of Planning and Community Development was given purview.

“It seems to make sense to consolidate this once and for all,” said Smith. “Originally, we had the Department of Public Health governing medical marijuana, now it’s all under the Cannabis Control Commission. So, the new language would address all those issues.

“The last key change is that we had some kind of restrictive operating hours under the former police chief’s guidance and recommendations, and one marijuana dispensary — Elev8 — wishes to expand their hours. So, basically, we have language that allows them to go to nothing more than anything the packages stores can do. They’d still have to go before the Planning Board and the public hearing process. And the current chief said he’s supportive of that change.”

Article 12 deals with both indoor and outdoor cultivation of marijuana.

Board member Alan Dodge asked Smith and BBCD Chair David Small if the town currently allows outdoor cultivation.

“Not currently,” said Smith. “Some towns do. Hatfield, Colrain, there are a number of Pioneer Valley, Western Mass. communities. But that was something, when we deliberated our marijuana bylaws in 2018, it was a conscious decision by the Planning Board not to allow it at that time.”

The proposed article would now allow for outdoor cultivation, said Smith, “subject to performance standards.”

“You have to have at least 20 acres of land, for example. Three-hundred feet would be the minimum setback. Basically, 80 percent of the parcel has to be previously cleared at some point in time. The people we spoke to seem to be looking for farmland anyways.”

Other zoning articles deal with battery storage systems, the elimination of so-called “split lot” zoning in downtown Athol, expansion of the Central Commercial Zoning District, and permission for the establishment of bed and breakfasts in all zones.

Four members of the board voted to approve the warrant while one, Andy Sujdak, abstained due to his affiliation with the 25 Sportsmen Club.

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