February 4, 2019

Overwhelming development in a small town

Let's face it, a small town of 13,000 is going to be hard pressed to handle a request to build a $100-million, 1-million-square-foot marijuana cultivation facility. The impact created by Valley Green Grow's proposal had to be the among the largest tax bonanzas Charlton officials had ever stared down. While hindsight is always 20-20, it seems clear now the town should have been more deliberate in all of its processes when handling this behemoth proposal. Larger cities have the planning resources to handle most inquiries, and can add resources when a large, sophisticated project is going through the system, but the state should offer resources to smaller towns turn when faced with a situation like this.

Valley Green Grow's proposal was initially approved by Charlton, which stood to gain more than $2 million annually in development fees and property taxes. However, when the inevitable NIMBY resistance kicked in, the town reversed course and the Planning Board denied the site plan. Valley Green Grow now has two lawsuits pending against Charlton – one over the site plan denial and a second related to the Town Meeting proposal to ban all recreational marijuana companies. Despite saying it has a list of other communities where the $100-million facility could be sited, Valley Green Grow is digging in for what appears to be a drag-it-out legal fight, which could end in nothing being built.

Volunteers who make up planning boards and boards of selectmen can often lack experience or the know how to run the process in a seamless manner. A little informality or sloppiness related to public meeting process when everyone in town, plus some expensive lawyers, are paying attention can mean any mistake is high stakes. If formalities like meeting notices get posted a day late, usually it isn't a big deal. Yet, when a big dispute arises, these informalities create major problems, such as the case in Charlton.

When Valley Green Grow initially came to Charlton with its proposal, town officials should have worked more diligently to understand everything the project entailed, both the upside and potential downsides. Instead, the proposal was batted about, turned inside out, and left hanging out to dry as residential opposition became more organized and determined, and its various boards felt the pressure. Charlton experienced a whole lot of hand-wringing over the impact of Tree House Brewing's move into Charlton, which may have been an indicator another very large project wasn't going to make it through the system.

In Lancaster, which has some 7,200 residents, a monster 40B affordable housing development was proposed around the holidays in 2017 when the town was asleep at the switch. In a town used to periodic small 40B proposals of a few units here and a few units there, Goodrich Brook Estates sailed through the early stages of its approvals with few noting its plans contained more than 550 units – an urban monster proposed for a completely rural setting. Now a well-organized citizens group is pushing to reduce it to a reasonable scale, but it's an uphill fight.

Big projects in small towns shouldn't just be left to an administrator and volunteer boards with too few resources to handle them. In situations like this, the state should have programs in place to provide advice and aid on the best approaches. An agency like the Executive Office of Housing & Economic Development could allocate resources to consult with towns on the best path forward. That way, small communities can better assess and negotiate with these parties, and more effectively bring economic progress.


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