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Middlebury to vote on cannabis retail

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury selectboard will place a referendum on the 2021 town meeting warning asking residents if they’re open to the prospect of cannabis retail stores operating in town. 
This means the citizen who proposed the referendum, attorney and Addison County High Bailiff Dave Silberman, won’t have to complete a petition drive amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic to force the question.
Silberman on Nov. 17 lobbied the selectboard to endorse the following question for placement on the warning: “Shall the town of Middlebury permit the operation of cannabis retailers and integrated licensees which are licensed by the state of Vermont pursuant to Act 164 of 2020, subject to such municipal ordinance and regulation as the selectboard may lawfully adopt and implement?”
Silberman argued a positive vote by the people would give the town ample lead time to draft zoning and public safety ordinances that would give the community control over where potential cannabis retail stores might be sited. Under Act 164 — Vermont’s new tax-and-regulate law authorizing the sale of recreational cannabis — retail sales of the substance will be allowed beginning in the spring of 2022.
A “no” vote would on Silberman’s proposed referendum would send a signal to prospective cannabis retailers that they shouldn’t consider Middlebury as a place to do business.
Silberman told selectboard members he’d file a citizens’ petition to place the referendum on the ballot if the board was unwilling to do so on its own. He would have needed to collect 5% (around 300 signatures) of registered Middlebury voters in order to present a valid petition.
It appeared as though he’d have to rely on such a petition drive, as board members were split (3-3) on the issue. Selectman Victor Nuovo recently resigned from the board, temporarily leaving the panel with six members. Members shared their views on Nov. 17.
“I feel this is a ‘want,’ and not a ‘need’ right now,” Selectboard member Heather Seeley said. “I really want us to concentrate our staff time and energy on the things we really need to work on right now, and not necessarily the wants. I think a year from now would be a better time, I’m hoping, to have a conversation (on cannabis).”
But Selectboard member Lindsey Fuentes-George said she believed the pandemic would make it tougher, and potentially dangerous, for petitioners this year. She added the referendum could provide the town with good information on the public’s attitude toward cannabis sales.
“I wouldn’t have a problem putting it on the ballot this year,” she said. “I wouldn’t want citizens having to get signatures together at this time. If it’s ‘either or,’ I’d rather have us do it, so that nobody is passing around a petition.”
Silberman argued adding a cannabis retail store within Middlebury’s mercantile mix could be a catalyst for reinvigorating a downtown that’s currently carrying several prominent storefront vacancies. The pandemic and the downtown Middlebury rail tunnel project have created tough times for local business owners.
Amey Ryan, a member of the Better Middlebury Partnership (BMP), agreed that a cannabis shop could bring welcome diversity to the downtown retail scene.
“If anyone walks downtown who’s not from the area and takes a look at the offerings, there’s not a whole lot of diversity in the sense of who the downtown stores are appealing to,” she said. “I think something like this creates some of that diversity. Also, I think from a real estate perspective, we’ve seen a number of people moving to this area, and a lot of them are looking for business opportunities … I think the time is now to support something like this, so it’s done properly and with eyes wide open.”
Matthew Delia-Lobo, owner of the Lost Monarch Coffee Bar and Royal Oak Coffee, said he supports bringing cannabis sales into the mix of downtown retail.
“We’re entering a time where we could seize the opportunity to bring new successful businesses into this town and really be ahead of the game on this,” he said.
“I think it’s super-important to the future of our town to get new stuff here.”
Vermont Book Shop owner Becky Dayton added her voice to the chorus.
“I think Middlebury is suffering from a real shortage of retail businesses,” she said. “I think this is a real opportunity for the town. I don’t think we should drag our heels. And frankly, it makes me a little uncomfortable that the selectboard would kind of kick the can down the road because they’re waiting to hear what the zoning administrator might have to say about it. I think you should move forward with it.”
And that’s what the board is now going to do, according to an email selectboard Chairman Brian Carpenter sent to Silberman on Tuesday, Nov. 24. In his email, Carpenter told Silberman he needn’t gather petition signatures because he’d “clarified (Director of Planning & Zoning Director) Jen (Murray’s) concerns as well as worked with the concerned board members and there is consensus that moving this question to a town-wide vote now is appropriate.”
He also acknowledged that “in the current COVID environment, it doesn’t feel smart for us to enforce mass petition drives for a decision on asking for a position vote.”
Carpenter promised an informational hearing on the referendum prior to town meeting.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].  

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