Chester Select Board talks around cannabis vote

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2022 Telegraph Publishing LLC

With less than two weeks to go before the town’s voters will decide whether retail sales of cannabis will be allowed in Chester, the Select Board continued to talk – and occasionally debate – about the topic including issues that are outside the scope of the vote.

Board member Heather Chase urges the board to focus on the ‘pros and cons’ of the votePhotos by Shawn Cunningham

While the 52-minute discussion (out of the 82-minute Feb. 16 meeting) looked at issues like how a 500-foot buffer from school property is defined and whether the state has enough regulations defined yet, members also brought up and discussed points that were peripheral to the decision that voters will be making on March 1. Those would be issues whether or not voters approve retail sales.

Among those peripheral topics that were discussed:

  • The expense and time to have  “drug recognition experts” trained;
  • The number of inspectors who will be keeping an eye on the cannabis industry;
  • Use of pesticides in farming cannabis near the town’s aquifer;
  • Deaths resulting from fentanyl-laced cannabis;
  • Studies that assert that black market sales increase in states that legalize cannabis.

Board member Lee Gustafson suggests board resolution on the topic

What everyone seemed to agree on – to a greater or lesser degree – was that there was not enough local control and not enough final information available. Board member Heather Chase said she felt there hasn’t been enough focus on the pros and cons of retailing.

Referring to the board as town leaders, member Lee Gustafson suggested formulating a resolution or recommendation from the board asking “do we throw up our hands and say ‘whatever the voters want’ or do we say we need more time or the voters need more information?”

The reference to a resolution was reminiscent of the heated discussions around whether the board should establish a mask mandate.

Board member Jeff Holden remarks on the civil tone of the discussion.

Chester resident Bill Lindsay asked how cannabis products would be labelled and said there has not been enough discussion about the effects of smoking cannabis on expectant mothers. Gustafson read the extensive warning labels mandated by Vermont’s Cannabis Control Board.

Asking the board to keep the discussion to the issues relating to the vote, Chester resident Linda Diak said that the board’s concerns are valid and should be discussed and even lobbied for in Montpelier, but talking about issues unrelated to retail sales muddies the water.

‘I think our town will be fine with it,’ says board chair Arne Jonynas

“It doesn’t benefit the voters to hear questions about aspects that the town cannot control,” said Diak. “It would be helpful to the voters to have that conversation kept to the actual issue at hand.”

Board members beginning with Jeff Holden remarked on the civil give and take of the evening saying that this is just one issue and they need to work together on others.

Board chair Arne Jonynas expressed his confidence in Chester’s ability to manage with retail sales of cannabis in town.

“I think our town would be fine with it,” said Jonynas. “I think it could handle it. People are used to having it around.”

The Telegraph is continuing to report on this issue.

How to spend $900,00 in ARPA funds

Town Manager Julie Hance explains the spreadsheet for prospective ARPA funding

Town Manager Julie Hance presented a spreadsheet of ideas for using $900,000 that the town will receive from the American Rescue Plan Act or ARPA.

She told the board that the list was put together by the heads of the town’s departments with a few ideas added by members of the public. Many of the items on the list are – or will be – the subject of grant applications, Hance said, noting that still more grant funding will be coming from the state and federal governments over the next few years and those will help with the list as well.

The next step, according to Hance, will be to have a public process to see what ideas come from outside town government. The board agreed that the funds should go to one-time purchases of things that the town might not otherwise spend on rather than to offset its regular expenses.

When ARPA funding first became available, there were specific areas in which it could be spent including water, wastewater and broadband. But those strictures have fallen away with the U.S. Treasury’s final rule that allows the towns to spend the money (up to a $10 million limit) on “government services.” The town would not, however, be able to use the funds for lowering taxes by adding it as income to the budget or paying on existing debt.

Finding money for those wayfinding signs

A map from the wayfinding plan outlines the village center boundary in a black and white dotted line

The board gave its approval for applying for a $200,000 Downtown Transportation Fund grant from the state. Hance told the board that the funding would go “a long way” to implementing the wayfinding program that came out of the Village Center Master Planning process.

The funds would have a 20 percent match and would go toward Village Gateway signage, signs that direct people to the Green, directional signage around town, i.e. Cobleigh parking signage, Pinnacle location; parking on the Green and, if the money holds out, information kiosks on the Green, the Depot Green and at the Cobleigh parking lot.

The grant application also requires the approval of the Planning Commission, which Hance said had been secured.

Benches and reworking the Green

Hance told the board that Julian Sottovia, a new property owner in Chester, wanted to donate two benches for the Green. In discussions with Scott Wunderle and Chester Townscape, Hance said that Sottovia picked the option of having the benches located on the Academy Building lawn facing the Green across Main Street. Hance said that this precipitated a larger discussion of looking at the Green and the areas in front of and behind the Academy Building with an eye toward beautifying them.

Hance said this would be a community driven effort and  Linda Diak, who lives just off the Green, asked the board to take into account the problems of walking on Common Street next to the Green when they look at plans to upgrade the area. These include roofs shedding ice into the street and commercial signs in the way.

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  1. Leigh Dakin says:

    Thank You all who have chimed in on this “question.” I am thankful for your comments.
    Don’t forget to VOTE on Tuesday!
    See you at the polls,
    Leigh Dakin

  2. Robert Nied says:

    To be clear, the minutes do not indicate a substantive interest in cannabis dispensaries by the community or a demand from the community to move forward with cannabis opt in. A lack of urgency on the part of the select board over the last year reflects a similar lack of urgency on the part of the public. The select board prioritized those issues that were the most critical to town and did not prioritize those which were not. The issue was raised by a select board member and was discussed, with the select board citing open questions that needed to be answered. The actual record does not jive with the assertion that the select board dragged its feet on a key issue of concern to the town. It also does not show a groundswell of public demand for opting in, but does show a determined business owner assertively moving the issue forward.

  3. Just a thought. The minutes of any given meeting are not the whole story. For example, the minutes of the Jan 25, 2021 special select board meeting says: “2. DISCUSSION RE: CANNABIS OPT-IN FOR TOWN WARNING This item was taken off the agenda and will be added to a regular meeting for future discussion.”
    Regarding the same meeting, The Telegraph reported:

    “At the beginning of the meeting, board chair Arne Jonynas said he thought it would be better to discuss the article in a regular meeting in which the topic is warned and the public could participate rather in a special meeting on a Monday afternoon.

    Because of the time limitations for warning the Town Meeting day vote, postponing the discussion meant that residents will not be voting on the question in March. After the meeting, Jonynas told The Telegraph that he felt it needed to be discussed before going to a vote but that it will indeed be voted on.”

    Then the entire year went by without the board putting the topic an agenda. The board did not circle back to the subject until recently and again deemed it was too late to discuss and put on the warning. This is the sort of context that can be missing in minutes and one of the reasons that newspapers are valuable.

  4. Scott Blair says:

    My buddy, my friend , my pal Robert if we are going to cite the records then please cite them correctly and fully. Selectboard member Heather Chase actually brought this up a few months ago just before the end of the year asking if this is something that needed to be discussed and brought to the boards attention. And it was a response from our chairman at one of those meetings that they owed it to the citizens that they don’t drag their feet and bring it to discussion because as was also mentioned the last time Myself and others went to the selectboard about this, we were told this will be discussed later that year meaning last year. Keep up the great work you are doing singling out one person that’s representing many in the industry and in support in our town.

  5. Robert Nied says:

    Between February 17th of last year and February 16th of this year there have been 31 Select Board meetings (regular & special). A review of the approved meeting minutes for those meetings indicates that for 26 of those meetings, covering nearly 11 months, there was not a single citizen comment about retail cannabis sales, not a single request made to the Select Board to prioritize the issue or to place it on the ballot.

    During that time the Select Board addressed multiple topics and conducted the business of the town. The first citizen to ask the Select Board to place the cannabis issue on the ballot was the same person who submitted a petition to do so, the same person who was quoted in the Select Board minutes of 1/19/22 as saying that he has an investor lined up to support his opening of a cannabis dispensary and if the town didn’t act to opt-in his “investor will drop off.”

    Suggesting or inferring that the Select Board failed to act on an issue that was important to the community is not supported by the record. Stating that placing the opting in to allow cannabis dispensaries in Chester on the ballot at this time is driven by a single business owner is accurate.

  6. Scott Blair says:

    I’m only going to address one part of the comments because the rest of it arguing about would be beating the dead horse that has happened on social media. I want to make this clear this petition wasn’t for one person or business it is for this booming industry and was brought to a petition because after over a year to get the selectboard to address this it still wasn’t and this is a vote that’s happening around the state and has been on the table to happen for years. The state has the guidelines out in black and white and personally it’s time to let this legal market come to store front and have a safe controlled way for people to access cannabis other then the black market.

  7. Robert Nied says:

    The opt-in vote on March 1st has nothing to do with the legalization of cannabis, nor does it present a potential roadblock to cannabis. Cannabis is legal in Vermont. References to “reefer madness” and prohibition are dramatic but irrelevant. Cannabis is legal. There is no prohibition. Opt-in has nothing to do with the value of cannabis or an ethical judgement about cannabis. It is a legislated mechanism by which individual towns are permitted to choose when and if to approve the business of cannabis dispensaries based on community and economic development considerations. It is an extension of a town’s right to create a master plan and supporting development standards. The urgency to opt in now, is artificial. It is not necessitated by anything a town must or should do. A town can opt-in in 1, 6, 12, or 24 months or 3 years from now. The urgency is coming from someone’s business plan, not from a community plan. Voting no on opt in does not end access to cannabis, does not harm the cannabis industry, has no impact on cannabis growers and does not prevent anyone from setting up a cannabis dispensary wherever that business is a permitted use under state and local law.

  8. Thom Simmons says:

    For more than 80 years, cannabis has been the subject of an ill-conceived federal prohibition that has resulted in lives ruined not by a relatively harmless plant, but by a legal system driven by an outdated “morality” code. Enough is enough. It’s time to stop hemming and hawing, and move forward.

    One thing Prohibition has taught us across the board, whether we’re looking at alcohol, abortion, or cannabis – is that throwing up obstacles to the legal sale of goods and services does not make them “go away;” rather, these goods and services go underground where they thrive in a black market where product quality is unknown and in many cases, dangerous. Whether it’s deaths from “bathtub gin” in the late 20s, back alley medical procedures, or fentanyl-laced pot, the result is always the same: consumers are harmed because there is no avenue for a transparent, legal market.

    New Flash: cannabis is bought, sold, and used every day, right here in Chester. I have no energy or desire to open such a business myself, but I must assuredly support a market that is open, transparent, and safe. I am disappointed to see many of our town leaders stuck in a half-century-old “Reefer Madness” mentality and throwing up red herrings as roadblocks.

    If they won’t lead, the townspeople will.

  9. Robert Nied says:

    Suggesting that “It doesn’t benefit the voters to hear questions about aspects that the town cannot control” misses an especially important point – the lack of local control is, and should be, an important consideration before voting on the opt in question. Towns are being told that they can form a local cannabis control board, yet that board would have no more power than already exists with the office of Zoning Administrator and the town’s existing police powers. Under the current law, a local cannabis control board has no control over any aspect of cannabis sales, beyond zoning compliance. Suggesting issues such as the growth of illegal cannabis markets in response to legalization are “peripheral” is also misleading. Voters should know, before voting to allow cannabis dispensaries, that states with the longest history of legal cannabis sales, like Colorado and California, have seen an exponential increase in the illegal cannabis trade. Reports can “assert” such a growth in illegal sales because they have been clearly and documented in both states. Voters should know, before voting, that claims that legal retail sales will put an end to unregulated, unsafe, illegal sales are simply false. The debate over allowing cannabis dispensaries in Chester has been primarily speculative and aspirational. There are no recreational dispensaries in VT, so there is nothing to examine as evidence of the impacts on small towns like Chester. Claims of increased revenue and a flood of new tourists are based on wishful thinking, and wishful thinking is not a community planning strategy. Let’s be clear – Chester is voting on the opt-in question because a single business owner with a stated interest in selling cannabis presented a petition. The burden to make a well-informed decision, that is in the best interest of the entire community, now rests with the voters.