BEACON HILL– At the prompting of residents, several weeks ago the Plympton Board of Selectmen asked the town’s state legislative delegation to file a bill that would define the language of a state law allowing certain activities, including agricultural activities, to operate unfettered by local zoning by-laws. The law is commonly known as Chapter 40A(3) or the Dover Amendment.
State Senator Michael Brady, D-Brockton, and State Representative Thomas Calter, D-Kingston, did file the legislation, and along with some familiar faces from around Plympton, both testified before the Joint Committee on Municipalities and Regional Government on Tuesday, April 12 at the State House.
Although there has been a certain amount of “mental gymnastics” going on in terms of determining if this legislative action would simply codify an existing definition of marijuana as a controlled substance, as House and Senate counsel argue, according to the legislators, or if it is in fact a significant change to 40A(3), the legislation simply inserts language into the agricultural section of the exemption to local by-laws, and prohibits marijuana from being considered agriculture for the purposes of relief under the 40A(3) exemption.
According to Brady and Calter, Plympton is the first city or town in the Commonwealth to challenge the definition of marijuana as agriculture.
The significance to the Plympton debate is that the Plympton zoning by-laws prohibit the cultivation of medical marijuana in an agricultural/residential zone unless the property qualifies for relief under 40A(3). If 40A(3) were changed to prohibit marijuana, the proposed grow facility would not be eligible to be built on Ring Road, where the applicant, Jeff Randall, wishes to site it.
First Representative Calter, then Senator Brady, testified before the committee, of which seven members were present, and presented the bill. Calter particularly noted the divisiveness the issue has caused, saying it had divided Plympton in a way he had never seen before.
“I’m not looking to make a new law, I’m looking to clarify a law,” he said. He noted that marijuana was already defined as a controlled substance.
He also stated that neither House Counsel nor Senate Counsel believe that the law needs to be clarified, but that the issue is, “of critical importance to people from the town of Plympton.”
Senator Brady presented the joint committee with 30 letters of support he had received in support of the act.
Chris Housley of Ring Road testified as well that the issue is, “tearing the community apart.” He spoke to many of the arguments presented at the previous night’s Selectmen’s’ meeting, and ended by saying it was a very emotional topic.
Stephanie O’Leary of Ring Road had harsh words for the Board of Selectmen, saying that Christine Joy, the only board member present, was the, “only sane member of the board.”
She said that the dangers of the proposal, “all were willfully ignored by two of the three Selectmen.” She later stated, “the willful arrogance of Mark Russo and Colleen Thompson is breathtaking.”
O’Leary believes the proposed grow facility will attract criminals, and therefore should not be in a residential neighborhood. She also noted the small police force in town, and that the Plympton Police Chief has repeatedly expressed his opposition to the project. She also tied the issue to gang-violence.
Sharon Housley testified next, saying that, “we’re here because we’re desperate, we really are.” She did not want to rehash facts, and said she was going to speak from the heart. She did not testify to anything regarding the specific law in front of the joint committee, but spoke to her general opposition and fears of the project, most of which she has expressed at previous Selectmen’s meetings over the past several months. She ended by apologizing, stating she had never done anything like this before, and was lauded for her testimony by the committee’s Co-Chairperson, State Senator Barbara L’Italien, D-Andover. “Good job,” she said. “Sometimes testifying from your heart is the best thing,” she went on to note.
L’Italien stated it was clear to her that the committee would need to further study the issue, and especially how the Department of Public Health, which regulates medical marijuana, feels about the matter.
Applicant Jeff Randall testified next, introducing himself simply by stating, “I’m Jeff Randall. I’m a farmer.”
He said that there is a significant group of residents in town that are supportive of his proposal, and that he has at least 100 letters of support. He attempted to explain the zoning by-laws to the committee, the first to hint at how the legislation would specifically affect him and target the Plympton zoning by-laws, as he thought they were intended to be interpreted.
He asked the committee to carefully study the legislation, not “fast-track” it.
He argued that marijuana was agriculture, using the analogy of hops, which are both processed into alcohol, and used to create a sedative which is a controlled substance. Hops are considered agriculture. So are red peppers, which contain capsaicin, which is also a controlled substance.
L’Italien was not convinced by this argument. She was also concerned about the project’s proximity to the Dennett Elementary School. Co-chairperson State Representative James O’Day, D-West Boylston, also quizzed Randall, especially on his experience and the details of the operation.
A representative of 4Front Ventures, of which Randall is a client, also testified, stating that there have been no known gang-related attacks on marijuana grow facilities in the country, that the facilities are very secure, and in order for marijuana to be valuable it would have to be stolen at exactly the right time in the harvesting season.
He also stated that former Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office had determined for the Town of Halifax that medical marijuana was allowable under 40A(3). He stated that the bill would substantially change the law. He was also grilled by the committee, but on more general aspects of any medical marijuana grow facility, including nationally.
Christine Joy testified last, briefly re-stating her previously known opposition, and that she was, “the only member [of the Board of Selectmen] that doesn’t believe this is an appropriate use of the land.” She stated her firmly held belief that the cultivation of marijuana was clearly not agriculture.
In the end, although only several members of the joint committee present chimed in with questions, they did not seem very familiar with the subject of medical marijuana, the “ins and outs” of the (very complex) rules set up by the Department of Public Health to regulate the industry nor exactly how 40A(3) fit in exactly with the specific situation in Plympton.
Although listening intently, it was quite clear that they needed to do some more homework now that they had solicited testimony. The joint committee co-chairpersons noted that they will have to due further due-diligence in committee.
In a heartening twist at the end of the hearing, everyone who knew each other from Plympton gathered outside hearing room B-2 and began to chat. Within a minute or two, Representative Calter’s legislative aide had gathered the group, ushered us all into a crowded elevator and began to lead us through the legislature.
Adversaries moments ago were now walking together as a group, getting a special tour of the State House, together marveling at the House and Senate Chambers, the Governor’s office, and other areas of the grand, historical capitol building. Just moments ago arguing, now everyone was just a group of fellow citizens, and although it went unspoken, it was a powerful moment.
“At the end of the day we’re all neighbors. Sometimes you have to agree to disagree,” said Christine Joy.