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Brattleboro planners explain ‘cannabis retail’

Cannabis businesses must be treated like any other retail establishment, and the town can’t limit the number of shops

BRATTLEBORO—There were few questions at a May 2 meeting of the Planning Commission, when the town’s Planning Department staff members offered a presentation about cannabis establishments and zoning.

About 20 people attended via Zoom, with a smattering of people attending in person.

Planning Director Sue Fillion showed maps of districts in town reflecting where cannabis can and cannot be sold and/or cultivated.

Overall, siting of a cannabis shop cannot be prohibited because, in 2021, voters opted in to retail sales — a decision required by the state law passed the prior year to regulate and tax sales of cannabis.

Thus, zoning can’t be manipulated to change that. However, cannabis sales can be restricted to certain zoning districts and the town could come up with a new use, such as “cannabis retail,” and treat it as a conditional use, said Fillion.

The only caveat to retail sales of cannabis is that state law prohibits it within 500 feet of a school.

In general, cannabis businesses must be treated like any other businesses in town, and the town doesn’t have the authority to limit the number of cannabis retail shops.

What the town can control

The town, said Fillion, can use existing zoning districts to determine where cannabis retailers can be located.

It can also look at potential conditional use, which would be looked at by the Development Review Board (DRB); site standards (parking, landscaping, traffic circulation, and stormwater management); signage (height, type, size, and location); adequate off-street parking/loading to avoid congestion; and performance standards (noise, odor, vibration, etc., and hazard prevention).

There are also advertising standards outside DRB auspices, such as the state Cannabis Control Board’s policy that the product cannot be promoted via the use of cartoons, which are perceived to be more appealing to younger people.

The planners have considered economic development, public health, public safety, and equity. Fillion explained the state will issue five types of licenses: cultivator, manufacturer, testing lab, wholesaler, and retailer.

Cultivation can take place outdoors or indoors, and the first application for an outdoor growing facility has come to the town. Greenhouses in most of the town are considered a conditional use, needing DRB approval.

Some areas, including the rural business district, are permitted use areas. Cannabis cultivation can also be treated as light industrial and miscellaneous manufacturing.

A testing lab is also an existing use and can be located in the downtown industrial area and at the campus of the School for International Training/World Learning (conditional use), the Delta Campus, the Exit 1 Industrial Park, and the Winston Prouty Center campus, among other locations.

Miscellaneous manufacturing — firms producing cannabis products but not selling here — can take place in the area east of Interstate 91.

Wholesaling licenses, where one is buying from a producer and packing and sending out but not selling here, are also available.

Retail shops selling to the general adult public is the only licensure where the town can create special rules within the scope of the statute and both permitted and conditional areas exist in town.

Small shops, like factory stores, are allowed in the light industrial zone but will need a retail or “integrated” license. Some conditional use areas are in neighborhoods with caveats, although a few small areas will allow small shops — up to 2,000 square feet — in these neighborhoods.

“We wanted to preserve the ability to have a neighborhood store where you could buy your milk,” Fillion said, adding she doesn’t know if it would “make sense” to open a store that small in these areas due to state and other mandates.

After applying the 500-foot school buffer to the downtown, much of Flat and Elliot streets and the area near the Municipal Center could potentially have a shop without size limit.

Some areas of Western Avenue east of Exit 2 would allow for a small store.

In the Canal Street area, Vermont Marketplace (the former Outlet Center), may not be able to be licensed to sell cannabis due to its proximity to Brattleboro Union High School.

In the West Brattleboro village, the eastern part would likely allow a retail shop of any size but the other half of the village is subject to the 500-foot buffer due to the Academy School’s location there.

DRB member Maya Hasegawa asked if the school buffer applies to places that offer programming for young children — like the Boys and Girls Club on Flat Street. If the state hasn’t made that a caveat, she asked, could the town?

“It’s not actually clear to me that we can buffer other uses — it’s something we have to look into,” Fillion said.

“I personally wouldn’t want to see a store across the street, like at the Latchis,” said Hasegawa.

Cassandra Holloway, director of Building a Positive Community, noted the Vermont League of Cities and Towns is holding a training session on May 24 for municipalities regarding many of the issues surrounding the retail sales of cannabis.

“It also kind of blows my mind that there’s no density — that a town can’t basically put a cap on how many of the businesses can be in our town,” Holloway said. “It just seems bizarre.”

Fillion will get clarification as to whether the town can extend the school buffer zone and on the density issue.

Saying “the zoning and land use regulations that exist will help guide us to a sensible policy,” Selectboard Vice Chair Daniel Quipp said he wondered about the regulations around establishments that sell or serve alcohol or tobacco.

“I’m kind of curious about the discrepancy, not with a judgment one way or another,” he said.

Fillion noted that when the Planning Commission started its work around cannabis, members looked at the issue. The regulations say “a shop is a shop is a shop,” she said, and it doesn’t matter what you’re selling unless it’s “an adult entertainment store,” which is governed by the U.S. Supreme Court to establish buffers.

The town may establish a local cannabis control board, which Quipp acknowledged may “end up” being the Selectboard.

Video of the presentation from BCTV can be found at brattleborotv.org/brattleboro-planning-commission.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #663 (Wednesday, May 11, 2022). This story appeared on page A1.

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