Officials call foul as cannabis cultivation project moves on despite Town Meeting opposition

Jun 29, 2020

Planning Board members decried a “shameful” situation at a June 29 meeting after finding out a Route 6 cannabis cultivation project was already given the go-ahead by another government body — ten days before failing for the second time at Town Meeting.

Maine-based marijuana grower Casco Botanical had been granted a use variance, a document allowing the company to bypass normal zoning rules, by the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals on June 10. 

The variance will allow the company to operate a cultivation and manufacturing facility in the Dartmouth Indoor Tennis property at 757 State Road — provided it completes a Planning Board site plan review and obtains licenses from both the town and the state.

At full capacity the operation could generate an estimated $450-500,000 per year in revenue for the town, according to Casco representatives.

A bylaw change proposed by the Select Board would have allowed marijuana cultivation and manufacturing in the entire general business district along Route 6 had it not failed by a majority at Town Meeting on June 20, just ten days after the variance was granted.

The use variance was not brought up before Town Meeting members.

Planning Board member John Sousa expressed his shock at what he called “almost a cover-up.”

“I am quite embarrassed that nobody, not one single official, spoke to Town Meeting letting them know that a variance had been approved,” he said. “Town Meeting wasted time on a big debate over nothing...I think it was shameful that it didn’t come forward.”

Sousa noted that although he agreed with allowing the facility, he was in the minority among Town Meeting members. “This is a democracy,” he said, adding, “This is totally, totally wrong.”

A similar proposal to change the zoning bylaw for the same cultivation project had also failed at last year’s October Town Meeting.

But as Zoning Board of Appeals chair Halim Choubah noted at the June 10 meeting, the board had to look at the particular property in question and treat it like any other use variance application.

When other members brought up the October Town Meeting failure, Casco Botanical attorney Richard Burke noted that it was a “completely different issue.”

“What you have before you is a use variance application for this particular site,” he stated. “What the Town Meeting had in front of it was a question of rezoning all of the general business district. And it got tied up in amendments and things that really have nothing to do with us.”

The board members did not mention that the rezoning question would be brought again at the next Town Meeting in ten days’ time.

“I’m not sure the officials knew,” said Planning Board chair Lorri-Ann Miller of the zoning board’s decision.

“I don’t accept that,” retorted Sousa.

Planning Board member Stephen Taylor called the situation “very sad,” particularly given that the zoning board is made up of unelected officials — although, he added, they may have saved the town “from making a dumb mistake twice.”

Zoning board members are appointed by the Select Board.

Casco Botanical had been unable to find a suitable property for marijuana cultivation within the town’s current marijuana overlay district on Faunce Corner Road, the company’s representatives stated at a previous meeting on March 10.

The board found that the “unique” Dartmouth Indoor Tennis lot, with just 17 feet of frontage on State Road and the facility set back nearly 300 feet and hidden from view, was well suited for a cultivation and manufacturing facility.

Because no retail sales would take place on the site, they noted, there would be no impact to traffic, with no signage and no external changes to the current building.

“With 40,000 square feet that was originally tennis courts, what are you gonna do with it?” asked ZBA member Alvin Youman. “I’m in favor.”

According to the ZBA’s findings, Choubah read, “The board finds the proposed facility will not be of substantial detriment to the public good.”

All three board members voted to grant the use variance.