Proposed marijuana greenhouses the size of 17 football fields could create 300 jobs in Charlton, but some believe the massive operation would harm quality of life and property values in town.
Tempers flared Tuesday night as more than 200 people filled the Charlton Middle School auditorium for a community meeting about the project. Many attendees said they felt the process at the local government level has not been transparent, and raised concerns about safety, odors from the facility, traffic impacts and more.
The Board of Selectmen, which previously voted to approve a host agreement with North Andover-based Valley Green Grow but has not signed a contract, said it will discuss rescinding its vote during its next meeting on June 19.
The $100 million facility is planned for 94-acres at 44 Old Worcester Road – currently Charlton Orchards, whose owners plan to retire. Valley Green Grow hopes to build an 800,000 to 1.5 million-square-foot greenhouse there to grow cannabis for medical and recreational use, as well as a sales and research center.
Charlton’s Board of Selectmen verbally approved a host agreement with the not-for-profit on May 15, which includes a 1-to-3-million-square-foot greenhouse and 500,000 square feet of additional buildings. The development is expected to generate about $2 million in revenue for the town, in addition to property taxes.
But some were not happy with the selectmen’s vote, saying the host agreement was negotiated in secret and residents were not given ample opportunity to weigh in.
John McGrath, chairman of the Board of Selectman, acknowledged that the process was flawed, but noted that no contract has been signed yet.
“I did say that we flubbed this,” he said. “I don’t know what anybody else wants us to say about it.”
During McGrath’s response, a member of the audience yelled out, “You screwed us,” which was met with loud applause.
Diane Dabrowski, a third-generation realtor in Charlton, said she was the buyer agent for a house across the street from the proposed site, but her buyer withdrew at the 11th hour after hearing about the project.
“As his buyer representative, I was shocked that I didn’t know this was happening,” she said.
Valley Green Grow’s CEO Jeffrey Goldstein was also in attendance to answer questions and listen to concerns during the meeting.
“What we hope to do is dispel those concerns by giving facts, by giving information, and also hearing what those concerns are,” he said, adding Valley Green Grow is still going through the Planning Board process that will ensure there is ample opportunity for community input.
Goldstein is an oncologist and became interested in the use of medical cannabis for control of pain, nausea and appetite improvement in cancer patients after moving to Israel in 2012, according to his biography.
He took the position of residency director at Sheba Medical Center in 2013, where he found that cancer patients were using much lower doses of opiates and were not having as many adverse side effects as his patients in Lowell, where he was the medical director of Radiation Oncology at Lowell General Hospital from 1991 to 2012.
A group of residents has come together under the name Preserve Charlton’s Character to oppose the plan.
If built, the facility would be among the country’s largest marijuana greenhouses, according to the Growers Network.
Greenhouse cultivation in Charlton will start at about 400,000 square feet and expand over time to 1.2 million square feet, according to Valley Green Grow. The not-for-profit expects to capture about 20 percent of the future medical and recreational marijuana markets in the state.
The facility would lease space to growers, which was brought up as a concern by several residents.
“Are those people renting space going to have to go through an approval process or are they umbrellaed under this approval process,” Sharon Moore of Gale Road asked during the meeting.
Valley Green Grow said each tenant would be vetted by the state and would also have to meet the facility’s best management practices.
The not-for-profit said one entrance is currently planned for Old Worcester Road, which prompted questions about whether the quiet country road could handle traffic from more than 300 employees.
Valley Green Grow said it will conduct a traffic study as part of the Planning Board approval process.
Deborah Noble, vice-chairwoman of the Board of Selectmen said the initial agreement between the town and Valley Green Grow would be revisited after five years.
“The Board of Health would have strict and rigid control over the facility and should anything go awry, they could shut it down immediately,” she said.
The Selectboard also acknowledged that it did not consult the town’s Marijuana Advisory Committee before verbally approving the project.
The plan is subject to multi-jurisdictional review and approvals by the town and state.
Many at Tuesday’s meeting also called into question studies that Valley Green Grow used to argue that its facility would not harm property values in Charlton. Attendees pointed out that those studies looked at urban areas, while Charlton is rural.
Selectwoman Karen Spiewak agreed, saying, “We need to use common sense, we need to look at data, we need to make sure we’re comparing apples to apples,” she said. “We don’t have our i’s dotted, we don’t have our t’s crossed, we need to put the brakes on.”