CHARLTON — A Worcester Superior Court judge has dismissed a complaint filed by a group of residents alleging the Board of Selectmen violated the Open Meeting Law by, in part, concealing its negotiations with a large-scale marijuana business seeking to locate at Charlton Orchards.
Valley Green Grow Inc. plans to develop a 1 million-square-foot medical and recreational marijuana growing and processing operation at 44 Old Worcester Road. It would be the largest cannabis cultivation facility in the country.
The next hurdle for the controversial pot farm comes at a Planning Board meeting Monday night. The Planning Board shot down a site plan for the project last week, concluding that the proposal was light manufacturing and not permitted on land zoned for agriculture. On Monday, the board is expected to formally act on the definitive subdivision plan.
Many riled residents have criticized selectmen, saying the process the board followed was improper and lacked transparency when it voted on May 15 to grant development and host agreements to Valley Green Grow, a company based in North Andover.
Selectmen responded to those complaints by conducting public forums and soliciting citizen input. The board then reaffirmed its earlier decision in a 3-1 vote June 19 to uphold the Valley Green Grow agreements.
Two weeks later, project abutters Gerard F. Russell, Brett W. Moore and Barbara Moore filed a complaint in Superior Court alleging selectmen violated the state Open Meeting Law. They alleged that happened in a March 27 executive session in which the board delegated negotiations with the applicant to Town Administrator Robin L. Craver. The second allegation was that the agenda posted for a May 15 selectmen’s meeting, at which the host and development agreements were approved, wasn’t sufficiently specific to inform the public of the issues to be discussed.
Selectmen John P. McGrath, Karen A. Spiewak, Joseph J. Szafarowicz, David M. Singer, and Deborah B. Noble were named as defendants in the lawsuit, which was filed on July 5.
The complaint asked the court to, in part, determine selectmen intentionally violated the Open Meeting Law and to nullify the board’s May 15 vote to approve the agreements.
Judge Jane E. Mulqueen dismissed the case on Jan. 3, stating, “The Court having found no violation of the Open Meeting Law regarding the March 27, 2018 executive session and having found that the violation on March 15, 2018 was subsequently cured, the court orders judgment in favor of the defendants.”
The March 15, 2018, date in Judge Mulqueen's judgment appears to be an error, since the meeting date was May 15, and it is repeatedly referenced in the memorandum. Worcester Superior Court staff members were working to clarify the date on Thursday.
“We are reassured that the procedures we use meet the Open Meeting Law requirements and when a deficiency is pointed out, the issue is addressed immediately,” Ms. Craver said Thursday.
The judge's ruling is moot now, since the Planning Board denied Valley Green Grow's site plan last week, the plaintiffs said in a prepared statement.
"The fact that no citizens attended the May 15 Selectmen’s meeting on the 'host agreement' for 44 Old Worcester Road and hundreds of citizens attended the May 29 and June 19 meetings regarding the siting of a 1- to 3-million-square-foot marijuana cultivation and manufacturing facility, prove the point that the May 15 meeting agenda was insufficient to inform the public. The court ruling that the subsequent meetings cured any violation does not negate the fact that there was error in the first place," the plaintiffs statement said.
"We would have expected that in a representative government the Selectmen would have sought input from the people before engaging in such a vote. That is why a petition approved at the October Special Town Meeting specifically requires a Town Meeting vote of the people before host agreements are signed," the statement said.
Meanwhile, the Planning Board is set to meet and render a decision on the project’s definitive subdivision plan at 7 p.m. Monday at the Charlton Senior Center.
The proposed $100 million project requires the board’s approval on two separate applications: a definitive subdivision plan and a site plan.
The Planning Board unanimously rejected the site plan last week by concluding the proposed use constituted light manufacturing and therefore was prohibited by town bylaw on land zoned for agriculture.
The subdivision plan, received by the planning office in April, froze the farm zoning, thereby grandfathering it from subsequently adopted marijuana zoning bylaws that prohibit the siting of marijuana businesses on land zoned for agriculture.
Board Chairwoman Patricia Rydlak said Wednesday the decision Monday on the project’s subdivision plan would be governed by provisions of the zoning bylaw in effect at the time of the application. If the board approves the plan, the zoning is locked for another eight years. If the board rejects it, the zoning freeze expires.
“Unless the plan does not comply with our zoning regulations, or there are safety issues, we are being advised that we have to approve it,” she said.
Valley Green Grow lawyer Michael D. Rosen said Thursday the company will decide whether to appeal the site plan denial after hearing the subdivision plan decision Monday night.
If Valley Green Grow gains subdivision approval and successfully appeals the site plan decision, the project still must gain multi-jurisdictional state and local approvals. It must also pass a Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act impact review.
Gerard Russell, assistant managing editor of the Telegram & Gazette, has recused himself from any involvement with this news story.