Agawam councilors open door for marijuana growers

AGAWAM — In the phrase “marijuana growing business,” it’s the last two words that interest the City Council.

Despite a longstanding opposition to recreational marijuana, the council this week voted overwhelmingly in favor of proposals by Mayor William Sapelli to allow recreational marijuana suppliers to grow their product indoors, in industrial zones, and to reduce the buffer zone between cultivation sites and non-industrial properties.

Councilors said as long as there are no retail sales on site, it makes sense to take advantage of the revenues associated with the cannabis industry, as long as it’s in a business that won’t change the character of its neighborhood.

“It could be manufacturing hubcaps or anything else inside, and nobody would have any other overt knowledge of it, other than signage on the building,” Mercadante said. “Agawam has an ambitious schedule in front of it with infrastructure issues, and looking for other revenue streams … this is one that would be rather innocuous.”

Town Solicitor Stephen Buoniconti told the council that “more and more developers are getting into this area,” and Agawam officials have received several phone calls from would-be cultivators interested in setting up an operation in Agawam. He said a marijuana grower would likely sign a host agreement paying the town 3% or more of its gross revenues, yielding an annual revenue of $200,000 to $500,000 per cultivator.

Councilors voted 10-0 in favor of allowing indoor cultivators on industrial parcels. They also voted 9-1 to reduce the required buffer zone from marijuana businesses to non-industrial properties from 500 feet, measured from property line to property line, to 250 feet, measured building-to-building. Council Vice President Cecilia Calabrese was the only “no” vote.

Buoniconti said the 500-foot buffer “restricts 75% of industrial properties, right out the gate.” He noted that marijuana cultivators would still have to ask the Zoning Board of Appeals for a special permit, and town officials such as the police chief and fire chief would also assess its impact on the neighborhood. Last week, Sapelli said any new marijuana business in town would also need a state permit, which requires a letter of non-opposition from the mayor.

In order to take effect, the amendments have to be voted a second time. They will appear on the council’s June 21 agenda.

Councilor Robert Rossi voted in favor of both amendments even though he had been one of the ban’s most strident supporters. The ban was intended to keep retailers out of town, he said.

“This is not about the sale of recreational marijuana in the community,” he said. “It never has been. The residents were very clear about that.”

Agawam has prohibited recreational marijuana facilities since they were legalized in a state referendum vote in 2016. The City Council enacted a permanent ban after residents supported it 2,682 to 1,831 in a 2019 local ballot question.

Sapelli said last week that although this will be the second time in as many years that the ban has been tweaked, he does not foresee asking for the legalization of retail sales. Last year, the council allowed medical marijuana businesses in town to manufacture marijuana products, such as oils and edibles, for recreational retailers. Cultivation sites in Agawam would also be allowed to manufacture products, but not sell them directly to consumers.

Although the town allows medical marijuana facilities, none have been built in Agawam. The town has permitted a medical marijuana dispensary in the Herzenberg building next to the South End Bridge, but it has not begun construction.

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