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Like other Mass. towns, Great Barrington sued over millions in cannabis 'impact' fees

Great Barrington, Mass. Town Hall and Civil War Monument.
Wikipedia Commons
Great Barrington, Mass. Town Hall and Civil War Monument.

Across Massachusetts, cannabis retailers are suing their host communities seeking to get their so-called impact fees returned.

A few of these lawsuits were filed last year in Pittsfield. Now the fourth marijuana shop in Great Barrington has filed suit against the town for the return of their impact fees.

Earlier this year, the Worcester County community of Uxbridge paid out $1.2 millionto a cannabis retailer — about 80% of the fees paid to that town.

Reporter Heather Bellow with The Berkshire Eagle has been reporting on this issue and explains what impact fees are and what they were intended to do.

Heather Bellow, The Berkshire Eagle: Well, when pot was legalized in Massachusetts, the state installed strict regulations for the industry and also gave cities and towns an option to charge a community impact fee. And they capped that at 3%. They imposed the fee just in case there were unforeseen problems related to the selling and using of pot in cities and towns. You know, perhaps if a police department found they were busier than usual, that could be an example. But, so far, at least in Great Barrington, the town has said that it has not been able to actually make a clear link to problems and these specific businesses.

The town manager in Great Barrington came out with a statement when some of these lawsuits were filed, and he said — look, pot shops, you decided to sell weed in this town, knowing what the cost would be in addition to all of your taxes, And you sign those agreements and those are legal agreements, and we're going to fight this.

That's the town manager saying that. And he's also saying that it's only been five years since legal pot started to be sold in town. And there may very well be some impact that has not revealed itself yet.

Carrie Healy, NEPM: Is it the lack of clear impacts that is enabling retailers to feel like they can ask for those impact fees back?

Yeah, they're asking for their money back. We're looking at more than $6.3 million for all the four businesses and the fees that they've paid since 2019. So they're saying that every year the town of Great Barrington tells them they are not creating any significant costs to the town, not creating a so-called impact.

So now the businesses are, of course, starting to view this as a shakedown. And so, that's why they're going to court. And they're also seeing other businesses across the state going to court. And, you know, Pittsfield has stopped collecting the fees. And a lot of cities and towns have stopped collecting impact fees because of these legal tangles. And I believe in 2022, Boston returned all the fees that they had collected. So, it's an interesting problem, for sure.

Was this a surprise to town leaders when they were served this lawsuit?

That's a good question. I don't know. Some of the retailers stopped paying the fees last year. They were behind in their payments, and there was quite a bit of communication and dialog between the town manager and the owners of these establishments about getting money returned and the establishments saying they would like to work this out with the town. They said they didn’t feel like they should be paying these fees and wanted to meet with the town about the matter.

So if there hasn't been a visible, widespread issue that needed to be mitigated with these fees in Great Barrington, when these suits demand the impact fees are returned, does it matter if the community has already distributed the money to nonprofits? Is there a potential claw-back situation coming that will need to be taken into consideration?

Well, I don't know. That is going to be, I suppose, a legal issue that is going to be part of all this. And there is some precedent, as you mentioned, with the Uxbridge lawsuit, and there are all these other lawsuits across the state. It's unclear whether they can take the money that they've already spent.

In Great Barrington, that amount already spent is about $1.4 million, distributed to various nonprofits and to the schools. So that that's a good question. I don't know.

Carrie Healy hosts the local broadcast of "Morning Edition" at NEPM. She also hosts the station’s weekly government and politics segment “Beacon Hill In 5” for broadcast radio and podcast syndication.
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