Cheshire Town Meeting Approves $6.6M Budget, Rejects Pot Bylaws

The delayed annual town meeting was held at Hoosac Valley High School to ensure room for social distancing.Cheshire Town Meeting Approves $6.6M Budget, Rejects Pot BylawsTown meeting votes to move forward with design work for Cheshire School. Town officials are looking to turn the school property into town offices, a community center and public safety facility.Cheshire Town Meeting Approves $6.6M Budget, Rejects Pot Bylaws

Carol Francesconi takes the gavel as moderator for the meeting. 

CHESHIRE, Mass. — Town meeting on Tuesday night rejected four citizens’ petitions that would have greatly limited marijiuna facilities.

Voters did approve amended versions of the 16 other articles on the annual town meeting warrant during a nearly three-hour session held in the Hoosac Valley High School gym.  That included a revised fiscal 2021 budget of £6,640,131.64, authorizations for purchasing a number of vehicles and the redirection of £60,000 approved last year but unused toward a design work for turning Cheshire School into a municipal complex.  

The marijuana bylaws would have required any growing facility to file a water usage report annually to the town; allowed only one non-retail cannabis facility in town; broadened the definition of “facility” to include accessories such as fences, plants and related items; set up a 24-hour odor control; and asked the Planning Board to revisit its approved bylaw.  Town Counsel Edmund St. John III cautioned that the petition did not appear much different than a similar one submitted last year that had not come with Planning Board approval and was rejected. 

“There’s a provision in the statute that governs all this, it says that if the zoning amendment was presented as something substantially the same as presented within two years, you’re not allowed to go forward,” he said. “This may or may not be a substantial change … That’s something that may be determined by the attorney general’s office when they review itself. I tell you this because it’s a concern to me.”

Planning Board member Peter Traub read an email he had received from chairman noting the proposed bylaws had been only briefly discussed and they seemed to share the fundemental character of last year’s citizen petition. “Passage of the bylaws at town meeting is likely illegal at this time,” he read. Resident Gary Trudeau had been involved in the drafting of the articles and said their purpose was to protect property owners from future cannabis facilities.

He and his neighbors have been adamantly opposed to Stafford Green, an outdoor cultivation business planned on Stafford Hill. Trudeau said he wasn’t against marijuana, he just thought it should be limited to specific areas that were not residential. “Marijuana is not an agricultural product, according to state law.

It is a commercial,” he said, adding that these bylaws would rectify problems in the future. “None of these affect Stafford Green. What this does is give property owners some protection.” A number of town meeting members, however, saw the proposals as personal agendas rather than beneficial to the town.

Several people thought the water and odor controls as unfair in an agricultural community — pot plants may use 6 gallons a day but dairy cows drink 30-50 gallons, said one man.  “I don’t think we need a revision of our bylaws to protect someone’s private interest,” said Jan Kuniholm, he calling fines of £1,000 a day for subjective odor control “vindictive.” The proposed bylaws required two-thirds vote to pass: Article 17 on water usage failed 37-48; Article 18 on limiting facilities, which was amended by Town Administrator Edmund St.

John IV to include buffer zones, failed 35-40; Article 19 on definitions was withdrawn; and Article 20 on odors failed 35-47.  Article 21, although advisory, was recommended by town counsel to have a two-thirds vote because of language stating that “outdoor cultivation shall be prohibited.” The article failed 23-49. This year’s meeting was held at the high school to ensure proper social distancing because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Just more than 80 voters were separated out in groups of two or one in seats set out in the gym. Everyone wore masks although they often had to be removed briefly to ensure everyone could hear people speaking.  The meeting’s first action was to elect a moderator and the town turned to former longtime Selectwoman Carol Francesconi, who had the town report this year dedicated to her.

“The past year has been exciting and terrifying all at the same time,” said the town administrator in explaining the Cheshire’s fiscal health. The town had been on a continuing budget for the past three months until the state Legislature ensured that local and school aid would be held level from fiscal 2020.  The town’s spending plan has been affected by the novel coronavirus and its impact on state and local revenues but at the same time officials are embarking on initiatives to better the town’s roads and services. 

“What you will see in this budget tonight is a new and more aggressive approach to road repairs,” St. John said.  Selectmen Chairwoman Michelle Francesconi said the main thing she and other board members have heard is dissatisfaction with the town’s roads and the plan put forward — and subsequently approved by town meeting — would allow the town focus on long-term planning as well as short term needs in regard to its infrastructure.

The town is committing to spending £320,000 a year on road repairs of which two-thirds is expected to come from the state. Town meeting approved the reorganization of road funding through the creation of revolving accounts dedicated to specific needs.  Town officials had considered a Proposition 2 1/2 override as Cheshire is closing is only £1,977 below its levy limit but that option has been dismissed for the time being. 

“We were really listening to any feedback over the last couple of weeks since the announcement of a 2 1/2 override scenario,” Francesconi said.  Town officials had eyed putting more free cash into the stabilization fund to replenish those numbers. But St.

John said the proposal on the table Tuesday night would be to use those funds to keep down the tax rate.  Finance Committee member John Tremblay made the motions to amend the amount of free cash to be used to reduce the tax rate (Article 3) from £235,000 to £376,000 and the amount of free cash to put toward stabilization (Article 7) from £201,573 to £60,573.  Both of these articles were tabled until after town meeting passed Article 12, which authorized the town to purchase a new highway truck with plow and sanding equipment for £130,000 pending a Proposition 2 1/2 debt exclusion vote. 

Article 12 was also amended to remove language stating the older 2011 truck would be sold after Highway Superintendent Robert Navin said £20,000 had been invested in the vehicle and it could still be used. “We put a lot of money into it we cannot get back,” he said.  Several smaller amendments were made to the budget: The £8,000 “special projects” line for the Board of Selectmen was zeroed out and the water collector salary raised from £10,984 to £11,359 on motions by Town Treasurer Rebecca Herzog.

She felt the special projects line was redundant since the town had a reserve fund and that the water collector had been overlooked when the board instituted 6 percent raises for a number of employees. (The town will next be looking at  adjusting wages for all employees.) Wire Inspector George Sweet also motioned to raise two line items in his budget that were inadvertently left out: raising his expenditures from £400 to £1,300 to cover certification costs and the assistant’s salary from £533 to £556. Also approved by town meeting was £58,000 from free cash to purchase a new police cruiser (the 2013 Ford Explorer Interceptor it is replacing will go to the Fire Department); £20,000 from free case for two used pickup trucks for the Highway Department; £60,000 from free cash for a new tractor and attachments for the Highway Department; and £10,000 from free cash for an actuarial report on the town’s post-employment benefit liabilities.

Town meeting also gave the OK to use £60,000 appropriated last year to fix the Cheshire School’s heating system to instead go toward design services to see how the school property could be used for community needs and public safety.

Article 6 was amended by Tremblay include an oversight committee of not less than seven members to be appointed within 60 days. 

Voters also approved adoption of property tax workoff programs for veterans and seniors and the transfer of £259,751 from the Water Department surplus account to fund the water main replacement project in and around Arnold Court. 

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