UPDATED: Residents voice concern over proposed marijuana cultivation facility

Mar 9, 2022

Dozens of residents came to the Zoning Board of Appeals March 9 meeting to make one thing clear: They do not want to see a marijuana cultivation center on Old Fall River Road.

The proposed facility would be located at 155 Old Fall River Road, just outside of the town’s Marijuana Overlay District along Faunce Corner Road.

The property has been a farm since 1751.

A variance to allow cannabis cultivation was sought due to economic hardship, explained attorney Richard Manning, who represented property owner Claudia Arsenio.

He said that, since 2018, the land’s high water table and animals from the nearby woods have made it difficult to plant and harvest.

Barns have also fallen into disrepair and Arsenio has been unable to get grant funding to fix the structures, Manning said.

“The woman has tried as hard as she can to farm,” he said. “She doesn’t have the funds to reconstruct the barn — the thing is held together by chains.”

While that may — or may not — meet the common conversation sense of a hardship, Town Counsel Anthony Savastano advised the board that it does not meet the legal definition of a hardship eligible for a zoning variance.

“Their argument does not satisfy a legal definition,” he said at the Select Board’s March 14 meeting.

The plan is to demolish an existing barn on part of the parcel designated for limited industrial use and build an 8,000 square-foot building that would be limited only to cultivation, Manning said.

The home on the property would also be converted to office space, as existing bylaws prevent a residential property from being within 500 feet of any marijuana cultivation.

Under current statutory and zoning requirements, the Town of Dartmouth can grant up to three permits for retail establishments, but has no cap on manufacturing and cultivation facilities.

Aresnio purchased the property in 2013 with her former partner Adrian Fulk. The property was previously owned by the Town of Dartmouth and has a conservation restriction in place by the Massachusetts Farm Bureau. Marijuana growth is permitted by the Bureau, but approval from its board is required.

“It’s still farming,” Aresenio said. “It’s no different than what I’ve been doing, but this crop will actually help me sustain this place and make all the improvements that I need to do.”

Many residents voiced their opposition to the proposed facility.

The primary concern was that approval of the project would undermine Town Meeting’s decision in 2018 to limit marijuana businesses to a specified overlay district along Faunce Corner Road.

“They’re not doing the right thing,” Community Preservation Committee Member John Sousa said. “The right thing to do is put this in the overlay district that Town Meeting approved — and in only that district.”

Resident Michelle Keith echoed that sentiment.

“How can the zoning board vote to do this when it’s not in the overlay district?” she said. “I think it’s going to cause a lot of turmoil in the town.”

At its March 14 meeting, members of the Select Board expressed similar concerns.

“There was a process the town went through to put these in certain areas,” Board Chair Shawn McDonald said. “The process has been circumvented, as far as I’m concerned, by going through the use variance.”

Vice Chair David Tatelbaum also voiced his discontent, but said he understands why residents and marijuana companies are looking to place facilities outside of the overlay district.

“It’s expensive to put stuff there and there’s not a lot of land,” he said.

Tatelbaum added that he would like to see the town revisit its charter and how applicants can seek a use variance from the Zoning Board.

Both sides cited the controversial 2020 variance granted to another marijuana cultivator for the former Dartmouth Indoor Tennis facility on Route 6.

That property is located outside the marijuana overlay district. In both 2019 and 2020, Town Meeting rejected a proposal to expand the district to include the property. Nevertheless. the Zoning Board granted a variance to allow plans to proceed.

The permit was initially granted to Maine-based marijuana grower Casco Botanical, but the cultivator backed out. Instead, Apotho Therapeutics, a budding cannabis company based out of Plainville, is drafting a host community agreement for a harvesting and cultivation facility at the former Dartmouth Indoor Tennis facility.

“No, you are not setting precedent,” Manning said.

While he disagreed with the Zoning Board’s previous use variance for Apotho Therapeutics, Tatelbuam said he was happy to see that the board wants to further examine this application.

“It’s a tough call,” he said. “They’re really wrestling with it.”

Ultimately, the Zoning Board decided to continue the public hearing to its March 23 meeting.