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Cannabis is big business at Lancaster meeting

LANCASTER – A crowd of about 200 filled half the auditorium at Mary Rowlandson Elementary School on Monday, May 7. They took about 90 minutes to take care of town business, including regulating marijuana sales and taking the police chief’s job out of Civil Service.

The big issue of the night was cannabis.

Article 13 prohibited retail sales in any zoning district, but allowed other types of marijuana establishments (such as cultivation or testing labs) in business districts, except the neighborhood business district. Article 14 was a general bylaw prohibiting retail sales.

Questions were asked on the kinds of cannabis consumption allowed in the town (none in any business establishment, as use in a commercial setting would have to be something specifically allowed for in zoning and it isn’t) and extending the existing moratorium; a mid-meeting call by Town Administrator Orlando Pacheco confirmed a moratorium is limited to one year and Lancaster has already used that year.

“A local site review has to happen,” Pacheco said about projects. “We have control.”

Selectman Stan Starr said, “if it didn’t fit the town, it wouldn’t happen.”

Dick Trussell, of Burbank Lane, said he didn’t like that Article 13 both prohibited retail sales while allowing other marijuana establishments to be zoned, if voters OK’d the article. If voters said “no,” it would leave the town open for where marijuana establishments could go (such as in a residential area), as well as allowing retail sales.

Trussell said the two should be “separate votes” so the town could choose to ban them both if they wanted, questioning if the town really wanted things like cultivation.

Planning Board member Phil Lawler said banning all marijuana establishments would likely “not hold up in a legal challenge,” and cost the town a lot of money to defend the ban in court.

Not everyone spoke against marijuana establishments.

Stephanni Fiori, of Burbank Lane, asked about revenue, concerned that “opting out loses money.”

Selectman Mark Grasso said the tax money from recreational cannabis would “not (be) a windfall,” but that a community compact with a business opening in town would be “big money.”

Starr said, to applause, that he didn’t want some “other town getting money for something accessible and legal.”

Although Pacheco said cultivation is not considered farms and thus “not agricultural” because these businesses “operate in enclosed buildings,” Brent Streeter, of Bull Hill Road, said the regulations from the Cannabis Control Commission do provide for “craft co-ops for local farming groups.” Streeter said growing should not be banned from residential and neighborhood business districts where farms are located.

The first vote to prohibit retail sales, which required a two-thirds majority, was too close to call. A hand count had it passing, 102-26, with the vote passing with almost 80 percent.

The general bylaw banning retail sales passed with 10 voters opposed.

Police Chief Civil Service

Pacheco explained the reason for the article to take the police chief’s job out of Civil Service was so the town wouldn’t be required to solely use the state’s test as the determining factor. Selectmen would be able to “look at a number of skill sets,” which would be done by the Board of Selectmen in collaboration with a public safety consultant. Selectmen would make the final decision about hiring.

Shawn Winsor, of Schumacher Road, said he was “concerned about taking (the police chief) out of Civil Service” as Lancaster has had “strong chiefs” for many years and he didn’t want selectmen to make the job political “as it is in other towns around us, like Bolton where even the colors of police cars are political.”

 Police Chief Edwin Burgwinkel said he asked selectmen to put the question on the warrant. He explained there would “still (be) a strong chief with a contract; it’s just not the same process.” He said that although Civil Service was “designed to deal with nepotism and the ‘old boy network,’ ” it had become too “confusing” as well as “too complex and antiquated.” The test is “not reliable,” and Burgwinkel said, the year he took it, he was the only one in the state to pass.

He added that Civil Service would only allow certain kinds of “just cause” for termination, so a “bad” chief could do only the minimum necessary to keep his job rather than what the town needs and “stay forever.”

Burgwinkel said being a “strong chief” is a separate law, where he is the one to decide departmental decisions like colors of police cruisers, not the Board of Selectmen. This law was passed during a Lancaster Town Meeting in the 1980s and is still on the books.

Of the 351 towns in the state, 285 have removed their police chiefs from Civil Service. With only 12 opposed to the change, Lancaster becomes the 286th.

Honoring citizens

There were three recipients of the Citizen Awards, an annual tradition begun in 2016.

Michael Sczerzen, of Barnes Court, received the award for being long-time chairman of the Historical Commission, helping with the Prescott building and being a landscape consultant for Perkins for the last 20 years.

Emily Rose, of George Hill Road, was given the award for her involvement since the 1990s in various positions on the PTA and with both the local Lancaster primary schools and Nashoba Regional High School, as well as being a Library Trustee since 1990.

One recipient was not present, so will be named and receive his or her award later in the year at the Special Town Meeting.

Earlier in the meeting, residents, who contributed to the town and died in the past year, were honored: Janice Kerrigan, who worked at the elementary school; Bob Pelletier, the foreman of the Water Department as well as an on-call fireman and deputy fire chief for 27 years; Peter Farmer, who served on the Conservation Commission for many years; and Robert Moody Jr., who was an on-call firefighter and EMT.

Full story is available here.

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