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Ferrisburgh eyes zoning for cannabis ventures

FERRISBURGH — By August, or possibly November, Ferrisburgh could have new zoning in place to establish where in the town cannabis retailers can set up shop and growers can plant their crops. A public vote on any new zoning laws is required.

A Ferrisburgh Planning Commission subcommittee is now working on cannabis zoning laws, which according to state law is essentially the only way municipalities can now regulate cannabis sellers, growers and manufacturers.

Ferrisburgh Zoning Administrator Steven True, who is joined in the subcommittee by Jean Richardson, Gail Blasius and Arabella Holzapfel, has helped research what the town can and cannot do in dealing with cannabis businesses. He has twice updated the selectboard at recent meetings and spoke to the Independent last week.

Essentially, all cannabis permits go through the Vermont Cannabis Control Board except town zoning, True said, and towns must grant permits to cannabis ventures that conform with their zoning laws. Thus, he recommended to town officials the zoning law update.

When True began the process of researching the issue he thought towns would have more say, but said he learned otherwise.

“I was under the impression the towns would have more, for a lack of better term, veto power,” True said. “And that’s just not the case. We’re really tied to statutes. One is really tied to zoning. It really limits the power of the zoning board to making regulations in the town.”

True told the selectboard that if Ferrisburgh does not have its own zoning in place to regulate cannabis operations, control over where cannabis sales and cultivation can occur would default to the Vermont Cannabis Control Board.

At the same time, True also made it clear the town could not make “arbitrary decisions” to deny applicants the right to operate, as long as their proposals conformed with relevant zoning. For example, he said, the zoning board of adjustment could not say there were already enough cannabis shops in a particular area and deny applicants on that basis.

POSSIBILITIES

But it could put some areas off limits, True said, as long as not done in a discriminatory fashion: “The town does have the ability to … prohibit certain uses in its zoning districts.”

True added there are three tiers of cannabis manufacturing licenses allowed in state regulations for extraction of substances from cannabis plants. Ferrisburgh will probably allow two tiers, for temperature and organic procedures, but not the third, in which he said there are “some chemical solvent processes.”

Because Ferrisburgh lacks municipal sewer, the planning commission subcommittee is proposing that third tier not be permitted, True said, using a standard that could be applied to other manufacturers.

“That’s really the test, this thing that you’re applying, is it applicable to other cases, or is it specific to cannabis,” he said. “If it’s specific to cannabis, you can’t do that.”

True said what the subcommittee will propose to the full planning commission on Wednesday, May 18, are bylaws that will specify in which zoning districts manufacturers, growers and sellers can operate, and what conditions the zoning board can attach to their businesses.

Typically, those conditions would include requirements for setbacks and frontage, and in the case of cannabis businesses security measures and limits on hours of operations.

Other items almost always dealt with in business applications are lighting, egress and access, parking, landscaping, impact on immediate neighbors, and similar elements including what True called “the general site review” that goes along with any conditional use review.

True, speaking only for himself on a preliminary basis, shared some thoughts on how things might look. He said growing might be allowed on a more widespread basis, while given the cost of new construction those interested in retail might seek existing stores in which to set up shop.

“I see a lot of suitability for these cultivator licenses. There is a sort of natural limiting factor for retail locations, just in the fact that we don’t have a lot of open commercial (sites) that are suitable,” he said.

True acknowledged the Route 7 corridor is probably a logical place for cannabis retail.

“You can say we’re looking at your Highway Mixed Use (district),” he said.

At least one Chittenden County business has expressed preliminary interest in a Route 7 site, according to town officials.

PROCESS

When a town-wide vote can be held depends on how smoothly the process runs and whether the full planning commission and then the selectboard agree with the subcommittee’s recommendations.

If the planning commission approves of the committee’s proposal, with minor tweaks if necessary, on May 18, True said planners could then forward the bylaws to the selectboard as soon as May 31.

If the selectboard also approves of the bylaws, it could call for a public hearing as soon as June 21.

If one hearing is sufficient, and there is not a public outcry for major changes in the bylaws, the town could hold a public vote on the bylaws on Aug. 9 — same day as the statewide primary election.

If that timetable cannot be met, a vote on bylaws regulating cannabis ventures is possible on the November state and federal election date, again assuming officials and the public are in agreement on new regs.

Certainly a majority of Ferrisburgh voters do not object to the overall concept. In March residents backed the idea that cannabis retailers should be allowed to operate in the town, 294-172.

They also supported another measure that would allow cannabis integrated licensees in Ferrisburgh — those who combine selling growing, manufacturing in some fashion — by a 295-170 margin.

LOCAL BOARD

The Ferrisburgh selectboard has also discussed with True creating a town cannabis control board, even though town officials agree it would not now have any regulatory authority under state law.

True and Ferrisburgh Selectboard Chair Jessica said the main benefit to a local cannabis board is that the state board would share its detailed cannabis permit application information with a local board. Thus, town officials could learn more about those proposing to do business in Ferrisburgh.

“Hopefully those people on the board would have more information,” James said. “Since we don’t really have any other way to review the information other than through zoning, it would just give them (applicants) another connection with the town.”

In the future, however, if laws change to give more control to communities, James and True said the town would already have a panel in place.

For example, True said if retail cannabis licenses were someday to be treated like liquor licenses, towns could impose more conditions on how retail shops operate. Now, selectboards or city councils renew liquor licenses on an annual basis and can change businesses hours of operation or conditions after complaints about noise or other issues, for example.

James agreed that was a potential benefit.

“Steven has been really great in sharing information about what we can do to help the future of Ferrisburgh in that aspect, and see, if there are any changes, that we are ready,” she said.

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