, Newburyport, MA

November 14, 2013

In Amesbury, councilors try to push through 'pot farm' support

Council president seeks resolution showing community support

By Mac Cerullo
Staff Writer

---- — AMESBURY — What was originally expected to be a quiet post-election meeting of the City Council on Tuesday night took an unexpected turn after council president Anne Ferguson proposed a last-minute resolution to allow a medical marijuana cultivation facility to be opened in Amesbury.

If approved, the resolution would allow Ferguson to send a letter of non-opposition to the state Department of Public Health, essentially telling the state that the city isn’t opposed to a request by Alternative Therapies Group Inc. of Newburyport (ATG) for a license to open a medical marijuana cultivation site in town.

The resolution was submitted as a late file and was co-sponsored by Ferguson and District 4 Councilor Bob Lavoie. It would not grant ATG permission to operate a dispensary in town, Ferguson said.

Unlike most City Council proposals, which require two readings and a public hearing before a vote can be taken, resolutions can be voted on the same night they are proposed with little public notice. Ferguson asked for an immediate vote, citing a Nov. 21 state deadline that ATG is facing, but many of the councilors felt the issue deserved more discussion and voted to table any further action until a future meeting.

Since the next regularly scheduled council meeting is in December, Ferguson said she hopes a special meeting can be held so councilors and the public can ask questions and learn more about the issue, and also so a vote can be held before the state deadline. Ferguson said she would like to hold that meeting before next Tuesday’s Ordinance Committee meeting, but nothing has been officially scheduled at this time.

“Primarily, people thought we didn’t have enough information,” Ferguson said. “So if that’s the way to do it, then hopefully we can vote on it by Nov. 21.”

Chris Edwards, a Newburyport entrepreneur who leads ATG, said Nov. 21 is the Phase 2 filing deadline for applicants seeking medical marijuana licenses. He said the letter of non-opposition would be helpful to demonstrate community support, but it’s not a requirement and his application will move forward whether the city acts or not.

“It’s important to have the support from the community, but the written demonstration in the form of a letter isn’t a requirement,” Edwards said. “There is a point-based system that the DPH will be using, and there are some points attached to having this letter, but in and of itself it’s not a requirement.”

Edwards reiterated that the facility would be specifically for manufacturing, and that all marijuana plants would be grown inside. He would not say where in Amesbury he wants to open his facility, but added that he is looking at multiple sites.

Besides a lack of information, the timing of the resolution was also an issue for some of the councilors. District 3 Councilor Donna McClure took issue with Ferguson’s attempt to call for a vote without a public hearing, implying that she was trying to sneak the issue past the public by not bringing it up until a week after the election and a week before the state deadline.

“The residents deserve to know and before we vote on any resolution that could bring a dramatic change in direction to our town,” McClure said after the meeting. “Clearly we need zoning protections. I do not want another strip club moment for Amesbury and I want the town to weigh in on a direction that could change the branding of Amesbury forever.”

Ferguson acknowledged that the election played a role in the timing of the request, but said ATG only approached her in early October once the campaign season was already well under way, and she didn’t have a chance to file her request until last week. She emphasized that she wasn’t trying to skirt the electorate.

“There’s no doubt that it’s not something you bring up a week before the election, we were all too busy with the election,” Ferguson said. “We filed it the day after the deadline, we didn’t want it to be a late file, but we got caught up in the election.”

If the facility were to be established, Ferguson said Amesbury would benefit from the additional tax revenue, and ATG would also donate about $50,000 per year to the city to offset the inconvenience of having the cultivation site in town. She also argued that the residents are largely supportive of the issue, given that 68 percent of residents voted in favor of legalizing medical marijuana in 2012.

While the medical marijuana discussion runs its course over the next week, the City Council will have a packed agenda for its final meeting of the term next month.

The highlight figures to be a request that the City Council authorize the mayor to enter into a 25-year lease agreement for the development of soccer fields at Woodsom Farm, which would allow a third party the ability to secure long-term, non-city funding to build new soccer fields in the area by Cashman Elementary School.

The council will also determine whether to accept the $1,642,434 MassWorks grant recently awarded to the city for the realignment of Water Street in the Lower Millyard, and whether to accept grant funding from the U.S. Department of Justice to support two school resource officer positions under the 2013 Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Hiring Program.

The other items that will be discussed next month include: an ordinance that would allow residents to keep chickens as pets and for egg production; a request to schedule the annual tax classification meeting; a request that the City Council vote to increase the exemption amount of qualified applicants; a request that the City Council vote to provide snow and ice removal to the residents of Quimby Lane this winter while the street acceptance process is pending; an order to reduce the FY2014 Water Budget by $505,000, and another to appropriate that amount of water retained earnings to the FY2014 Water Budget; and an order to accept Timber Lane as a public way.