There may be two sides to every issue, but Morristown residents have been getting it from all sides as they prepare to vote on a trio of topics that have very little to do with each other.

On Dec. 7, voters will decide whether to allow Stowe to leave the merged school district to which Morristown and Elmore also belong; whether to pass two articles related to cannabis business operations; and whether to let all-terrain vehicle users access to certain town roads.

The vote was forced when Elmore decided to hold its own vote on leaving the school district, forcing Morristown to act. Town officials, knowing there was a clamor for votes on cannabis and ATVs, decided to bundle the whole package onto one ballot.

Ballots were sent out to all registered voters, and an informational meeting was held last Thursday, Nov. 18. That meeting, which was lightly attended, was recorded by Green Mountain Access TV and can be viewed at bit.ly/3l42L3Q.

Withdrawal symptoms

The populace is faced with two countering legal opinions on the legality of Stowe leaving Lamoille South — which ought to provide a litmus test for Elmore, which is also voting to leave Dec. 7.

One the one hand, lawyers representing the Vermont Agency of Education, which has pushed for school district consolidation, opine that Stowe cannot withdraw from the Lamoille South Unified Union, based on the governance structure and the fact it was forced to merge by the state.

On the other, legal counsel hired by the town of Stowe says yes, the town can withdraw, using a different interpretation of the same language in Act 46.

While new superintendent Ryan Heraty did his best to provide objective information, more questions than answers still surround a scenario in which Stowe leaves the merged school district.

“Probably the biggest issue here is the statute, and the way that the Act 46 statute was written didn’t clearly outline how a school or a town can withdraw from a unified union school district, and what process it would go through,” Heraty said. “So that statute will hopefully be rewritten to articulate: when a town wants to withdraw, how will they show that this will improve educational quality of students? Will it improve the financial operations of the district and the budgeting process?”

This much is known: in May, Stowe residents overwhelmingly voted 1,068-464 to withdraw from Lamoille South. This triggered a legal obligation for residents in Morristown and Elmore to follow suit. There is no timeline established, other than the two towns must vote on the same day.

Despite pressure from Stowe residents urging expediency, Morristown officials were inclined to wait until Town Meeting Day, partly in order to save money on a special election. However, Elmore forced the town’s hand when it set Dec. 7 as the date for its own vote on leaving the district, and added the Stowe withdraw ratification to the ballot.

“Can we send the bill to Elmore since they’re requiring us to have this election?” Morristown resident Laura Streets asked.

Morristown residents this week received a mailer from a trio of Stowe residents associated with a Northfield-based organization called Save Our Schools.

The letter lays out four reasons why Morristown voters ought to let Stowe leave: to regain control of school spending; to “ensure that your voice matters”; to make sure each town isn’t paying for another’s school building improvements and construction; and to make sure Morristown kids stay in Morristown schools, rather than leave any school closures up to a board representing three towns as one entity.

One of those letter signatories, Richard Bland — a lead architect of the Stowe withdraw vote, a former Stowe school board member and a self-professed “interloper” in Morristown and Elmore in recent months — said there has been precedents set this year with the state education board allowing towns in merged districts to leave.

Bland noted the town of Westminster, which had been forced into its merged district with Athens and Grafton, was allowed to leave after its residents voted to do so.

Heraty pointed out, though, that there is a big difference between Westminster’s merged school district and Lamoille South, which is a unified union district.

Selectboard member Brian Kellogg said it’s not fair that the state made the three towns merge and now it’s making Morristown vote whether to allow Stowe to leave.

George Cormier said voting on this without enough information on the potential costs to Morristown residents is akin to “taking one more step off the deck of the Titanic.”

“I think Stowe should want to get out. They got forced into this. They got bamboozled into it. They didn’t want it,” Cormier said. “So, if we’re voting yes, to let them out, to me, there’s got to be the caveat that we’re not paying for it.”

Pot or not?

Morristown voters are asked to vote on a pair of cannabis-related articles: allowing cannabis retailers in town and whether to allow “integrated licensee operations.”

When it came to information on the topic, two opposing viewpoints were presented, instead of a more impartial view.

Representing the pro side was lawyer Andrew Subin, a cannabis lawyer helping some 200 clients in Vermont seek retail permits — including Morristown resident Matt Lindemer, who has publicly pushed for retail in Morristown and hopes to have his retail application “on the top of the pile” when the state begins issuing permits.

Representing the more cautionary side of legal pot was Jessica Bickford, executive director of Healthy Lamoille Valley.

Selectboard member Jess Graham asked what would happen if voters said yes to retail but no to integrated licenses.

Subin said the way Act 146 describes integrated licenses is “kind of a misnomer” because, as the law is written, those types of licenses are only available to currently operating medical cannabis dispensaries, of which there are five in Vermont — and one company runs two of them, knocking the total number of integrated licenses down to four.

“We know where those guys are, and they’re not here,” Subin said.

Retail cannabis outlets also allow consumers to purchase product that has been grown and tested using quality control measures that most home growers or black-market sellers can’t tout. The cannabis control board aims to keep the market small and made in Vermont, with many in the industry likening the opportunity to Vermont’s well-regarded craft beer sector.

“Wouldn’t you rather have regular consumers of cannabis be able to buy their product in a store where that product is tested, they know it’s free of contaminants, free of pesticides, they know the potency of the product?” he asked.

Subin touted the job creation aspects of the venture, saying most of his clients are starting at $20 per hour or more, with higher rates for managerial positions.

“It’s important to keep our youth here,” he said.

It’s also important to keep youth safe, countered Bickford. She said that starts with the nomenclature, which is why Healthy Lamoille Valley and its ilk use the term “adult use” rather than “recreational use” when it comes to legalized pot.

“Recreation is sports, it’s what we want our kids to be doing,” Bickford said. “We work really hard in prevention to avoid the term recreational use we’re talking about, especially, cannabis, which is not recreational for our youth.”

Bickford said, according to surveys conducted among Vermont teens, in 2018 the state ranked number one in the country with the percentage of older teens who have consumed marijuana. In Lamoille County, use is higher — she said 8 percent of middle schoolers and 28 percent of high schoolers reported using pot, compared to 5 percent and 28 percent, respectively, statewide.

The Lamoille South school board last week took a stand against a retail cannabis outlet in Morristown. The board voted last Tuesday, two days before the informational meeting, to pass a resolution urging Morristown residents to vote no, citing those usage statistics and listing deleterious health effects on youth, including “cannabis-induced psychosis,” mental health problems and suicidal behavior.

Board member Tiffany Donza of Stowe drafted the resolution in consultation with Healthy Lamoille Valley, according to minutes from the school board’s Nov. 16 meeting. The vote for the resolution was 6-1, with board chair David Bickford voting against it.

Jessica Bickford — no relation to the school director — said today’s product isn’t your grandpa’s pot from the 1960s and 1970s, where the level of THC, the chemical compound that gets you high, used to hover around the 2 percent range. Now, law allows for pot to be sold with 34 percent THC, and upwards of 60 percent for concentrates, she said.

Resident Laura Streets commented that similar arguments were made as the craft beer market evolved, as the level of alcohol in beer first crept up over 6 percent, and then 8 percent, and now the sky’s the limit.

Subin said Lindemer’s store would feature two people checking IDs to make sure people are 21 or older — one check to even enter the place and another at the point of purchase. Subin likened it to a liquor store, except one where you must be of age to even go inside.

Lindemer said, if he were granted a permit for his proposed location on Stafford Avenue, there will be no signs or gimmicky imagery outside trying to attract people. He said it’s not going to be “bongs and tie-dye hanging out the window. It’s going to be very clean cut, very professional.”

Graham asked whether the town could control local permitting in order to keep retail shops away from schools. The answer is yes, both Subin and Bickford said. The town can set up its own commission to regulate cannabis retailers and set local rules and zoning bylaw restrictions.

Bickford added such measures can, and should, be extended to other places where minors congregate, such as parks and youth centers. She also suggested that retailers not set up shop near substance use recovery centers.

As far as retail cannabis shops bringing tax revenue to the towns in which they operate, it depends on the town. Bickford said such a tax scheme is only available in towns that have a local option tax for retail receipts, and Morristown has no such mechanism in its town charter. Stowe does have a local option tax that brings in a tidy sum of revenue each year for the town — about $1 million — but even there, its option tax only applies to rooms, food and alcohol sales, not retail.

Speaking to the perceived increased costs associated with law enforcement, Lindemer said if he gets licensed, he will give 1 percent of his revenue to the town.

Morristown resident Betsy Rich said Vermonters haven’t even received the full breadth of what a retail cannabis market would look like, so why vote on it now?

“It seems like we’re putting the cart ahead of the horse,” Rich said.

Subin said time is of the essence, because the state intends to start taking applications at the beginning of March, and the permits it will issue are limited.

“It’s not like, let’s wait and see how this pans out in other jurisdictions, and then maybe we can opt in,” Subin said. “You have to opt in now to be ready to do this next summer.”

Road worriers

The final item on the Morristown ballot is whether to allow all-terrain vehicle to use certain town roads: Silver Ridge Road, Center Road from the Hyde Park town line to the intersection of Upper Munson Avenue, Trombley Hill Road, Frazier Road, Munson Avenue from Route 15 to the intersection of Northgate Plaza Drive, and Northgate Plaza Drive to the Northgate Plaza parking lot.

Unlike the votes on Stowe’s merger divorce and retail cannabis, the vote on ATV use is nonbinding. Selectboard chair Bob Beeman said the board will use it as a temperature check to determine what to do next.

ATV use wasn’t discussed at last week’s informational meeting because the town held such a meeting in July. It was a well-attended affair held outside at Oxbow Riverfront Park.

Proponents cite the recreational aspects of the machines and tout their ability to bring big bucks to local merchants and restaurants. They point out they only want a small portion of the northern part of town to connect to town roads already open for use in Hyde Park, so they can make their way to the northern business sector, such as the Northgate Plaza.

Opponents cite safety issues, saying that ATVs manufacturers explicitly recommend against driving them on paved roads. They also say the machines are too loud and question whether there is even an ATV trail network in town for the roads to connect to.

If social media and mailbox campaigning in recent weeks is any indication, temperatures run high on both sides of the issue.

This story was updated to correct the byline to Tommy Gardner.

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