Western Massachusetts Farmers Frustrated By Marijuana Zoning Prohibitions

Photo Credit: Don Treeger

Monson farmer Lia Reilly wants to grow cannabis.

“I want to do it with sunlight, lots of organic nutrients, and I don’t want to grow in a warehouse,” Reilly said.

But Reilly has a problem: her farm is zoned rural residential, and the town of Monson only allows marijuana to be grown on industrial land.

“I am disappointed that the town of Monson would consider cannabis cultivation to be something that should be industrial zone only, when it is a plant that I would like to grow on my farm,” Reilly said. “I don’t see the purpose in keeping farmers who have farmland from growing a crop.”

The licensing process opened this month for growers who want to cultivate cannabis for the state’s newly legal recreational marijuana industry. But under a provision of the law passed by the state Legislature, farmers do not automatically have a right to grow cannabis, as they have a right to grow other crops.

Instead, a marijuana grower can only operate in places where the city or town zones for marijuana.

Farmers say larger industrial growers can choose where to locate a facility — but local farmers are being blocked.

Many towns are still considering how to deal with marijuana, whether through a moratorium, ban, cap on retail stores or zoning. But so far, 65 communities have banned marijuana permanently, and 161 have moratoriums in place, generally until the end of the year, according to the Massachusetts Municipal Association.

Even in communities that allow marijuana, zoning restricts where it can be grown. Of 120 communities considering zoning bylaws, 44 have approved them, according to the Municipal Association.

Eric Schwartz co-founded Farm Bug Cooperative, which will provide services like marketing and bulk buying to multiple farmer growers. He has been in touch with 15 or 20 farmers who are potentially interested in joining the cooperative. But none have gotten a green light from their town.

“I don’t have anyone zoned for cultivation yet,” Schwartz said. “Unfortunately, what’s happening in a lot of places is before anyone realizes what’s happening, farmers are zoned out of cultivation.”

Schwartz has been going to municipal board meetings around the state negotiating with town officials about grow size restrictions, moratoriums and zoning.

In Monson, planner Daniel Laroche said the planning board decided to regulate recreational marijuana the same way it regulated medical marijuana — by keeping it in industrial areas. “We have a few small industrial districts in town. They seemed to be appropriate places, not near schools, so it seemed to make sense,” Laroche said.

Laroche said the rural residential zone covers 80 percent of town land. Allowing marijuana cultivation there “would open up a lot of land for that use, and I don’t think the residents of the town of Monson would be happy with that,” he said.

If most marijuana ends up being grown by large indoor growers who are not necessarily town residents, rather than local farmers, Schwartz said, “I’m concerned there’s going to be a lot of buyer’s remorse in the years ahead.”

Ware farmer Bill St. Croix said it was frustrating when medical marijuana was legalized to see farmers excluded, because of requirements that marijuana be grown indoors and that growers also operate retail dispensaries. St. Croix said there is no reason marijuana cultivation should not be allowed by right like any other plant, outdoors or in greenhouses, rather than in industrial warehouses.

“It seems like the only reason to do this is to marginalize the farmer,” St. Croix said.

St. Croix wants to grow cannabis at his farm, but draft regulations in Ware only allow marijuana in commercial or commercial-industrial zones.

“You don’t have practical sense going into zoning regulations,” St. Croix said. “It’s hurting people, hurting farmers. It will only help corporations in the long run.”

Part of the dilemma is timing, and the difficulty town boards have developing zoning regulations quickly.

“To get zoning in place for a lot of towns has been a struggle,” said Easthampton planner Jeffrey Bagg. “The timeline is pretty aggressive in terms of what a town typically does and how a town typically works.”

The Cannabis Control Commission, the statewide agency overseeing marijuana, released draft regulations in December and final regulations in March, with licensing applications opening in May.

In contrast, Bagg said Easthampton just took several months to pass a chicken ordinance.

“This is very new,” Bagg said. “It’s a huge learning curve to not only set up zoning, but before you set up zoning you have to understand what you’re regulating.”

Dan Sullivan owns land in Buckland, which was considering a moratorium and is now going through the zoning process. He worries that local boards are made up of volunteers with no marijuana expertise.

“A lot of ideas are getting made up by people with no experience in the industry whatsoever,” Sullivan said. “They’re scared of it, so they push it into the industrial zone.”

Sullivan said the town of Montague is already negotiating business agreements, while he is still in discussions with town planners. “Where you’re in my situation and you’re stuck behind a slow moving planning board, it’s hard to know where to go,” Sullivan said.

Buckland town administrator Andrea Llamas said small towns like Buckland do not have professional staff, so they rely on regional planning agencies. Decisions about marijuana can be unusually controversial.

“I’ve not seen this much division between the select board and planning board and residents,” Llamas said. “Farmers and potential local retailers may feel differently from the planning board who may feel differently than the select board.”

In Deerfield, a divided planning board voted to put a moratorium on the agenda for town meeting, only to have a divided select board strike it, according to the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

Not every farmer is unhappy.

Lanesborough farmer Dan Bergeron said he has been satisfied with local officials as he tries to get permission to use two of his five greenhouses to grow cannabis. “The approval process is going good. The town is on board, and we’re moving ahead,” Bergeron said.

Bagg said there will be differences in how quickly communities act. “Some towns will figure it out quickly,” Bagg said. “In some towns, especially towns without a town planner, it’s going to take a long time.”