Editor’s Note: This story by Liberty Darr was first published by The Citizen on May 11.
A licensed cannabis-growing operation on a rural dirt road in Charlotte is raising the ire of surrounding neighbors — a chaotic situation the cultivator has likened to a new wave of “reefer madness.”
John Stern has been growing marijuana in Charlotte under a Tier 1 outdoor operation, Red Clover Canopies, since August. The budding business has been the recipient of a slew of resident-led backlash that started just months after cultivation got underway and at one point prompted residents to make Stern a buyout offer.
Issues arose last November when residents and town officials reached out to the state Cannabis Control Board regarding the issuance of Stern’s Tier 1 license — which, per Act 158, is exempt from local permitting since it is an outdoor grow operation of 1,000 square feet or less.
The operation, which is set on a 3-acre plot of land, is “bounded by trees on both sides of the road,” Stern said. “In the summertime, once the leaves are on, nobody can see us.”
The original concerns came because of lights emanating from a covered hoop house where the bud grows, which Stern told The Citizen was needed mostly because they began growing at an inopportune time of year, in part because “the town and (neighbors) had stood in the way and created problems for us on our licensing when we got started.”
“We wound up having a grow at a time of year we never wanted to be growing, and so it was like, ‘Look, I’m just trying to finish this thing and that requires lights. I will turn the lights off by 6 p.m.,’’’ said Stern. “We talked and everybody agreed: OK, turn them off at 6 p.m.”
Keith Oborne, the town’s former zoning administrator, emailed Stern on Nov. 2, solidifying this agreement.
“I have informed the concerned parties that the lighting associated with the operation will be extinguished at 7:30 p.m. every night moving forward and will not be turned on until 7:30 a.m. the following morning,” he wrote. “Let’s keep the lines of communication open as I suspect this will not land gently with the concerned individuals.” He ended the email wishing Stern “success with (his) operation.”
Trouble came just two days later, when Stern admits he mistakenly left the grow lights on past the mutually agreed upon time, sparking residents’ anger and the future need for arbitration between the two parties.
A nearby neighbor, Andrew Hale, told the Cannabis Control Board on Nov. 4, “There are grow lights on all night.”
“They are growing cannabis in an approximately 2,700 square foot greenhouse without any local permitting, claiming the cannabis operation is (less than) 1,000 square feet and so not subject to local regulation,” he wrote in an email obtained through a public records request. “Through the door and window of the greenhouse, easily visible from the nearby public road and adjacent properties, it is easy to see green plants throughout the (approximately) 2,700 square foot greenhouse. There is cause to believe the size of the operation is greater than the 1,000 square feet licensed, and that the operator does, in fact, need local permitting, which they don’t have.”
This email was followed up by more email complaints on Nov. 11 and Nov. 17 citing the same issues. “(The lights) were on deep into the night (and sometimes all night) up until about one week ago, now they go off in the evening between about 6:45 p.m. and 7:30 p.m,” Hale wrote, including a photo of Stern’s grow operation with lights on at 5:40 p.m. — before the time when Stern had previously agreed to have the lights off each night.
“I can tell you everybody else’s lights were still on (at 6 p.m.),” Stern said. “Nobody was asleep.”
Another neighbor, Jen Banbury, said that although she is “in favor of cannabis legalization, Vermont is blessed with an abundance of open spaces. There is no reason to have cannabis cultivation in the midst of a residential neighborhood. It would be to the benefit of residents and growers to operate in places where there will be no conflict.”
Following the influx of complaints from neighbors and town officials, the state conducted a full investigation and site visit of Stern’s grow operation and determined the operation was complying with all necessary regulations, including lighting.
According to the state-ruled definitions, “indoor cultivation” is determined as growing cannabis using artificial lighting whereas “outdoor cultivation” describes growing cannabis in an expanse of open or cleared ground or in a structure that does not use artificial lighting and is not a greenhouse.
“Taking each of the town’s specific complaints in turn, the state found that the licensee’s light use complied with the rules because the light use did not substitute natural light to grow the plants for market use,” said the notification sent to town officials and residents, Andrew Hale, Jen Banbury and Jeff Beerworth on Nov. 16. “The state found the licensee’s operation within the 1,000-square-foot limitation, and within the 125-plant cap because the operation was beneath both standards. The state found the licensee’s hoop house complied with the rules because the hoop house does not control the complete environment for cultivation.”
The state also found the use of a hoop house structure compliant because the structure did not substitute for the plants’ natural environment and the heater inside the structure was an insufficient substitute for sunlight and only used to prevent plant death during overnight frost.
“The State found the licensee’s lighting use compliant with its rules because the lighting was insufficient to ‘flower’ their plants. Plants require a critical amount of energy before they can produce further organ structures beyond their leaves,” reads the document. “Here, the licensee has a lighting system installed that is supplemental and not a substitute for natural sunlight because there are too few lighting devices installed in their hoop house. There are too few lighting devices because a grower would need one lighting device for every two plants’ energy needs to flower.”
In response to the state’s findings, Bloch told the Cannabis Control Board that, “we do not agree with your assessment of the lighting at the site.” Bloch visited the grow site a few days later and took “two photos on Monday, Nov. 14 at about 5:30 p.m.” that show grow lights on, he wrote in the email. “It would be helpful to know if such lighting is allowed under Tier 1 licensure. It’s hard to imagine that such lighting is for anything other than to bolster the crop.”
The state ultimately recommended formal mediation between the two parties by an outside source, Vermont Agriculture Mediation Program. Although exact details of the mediation efforts are protected under a non-disclosure agreement, Stern said no solution was ever reached.
“Before we went and entered into arbitration when this whole thing started, I offered to move, (Hale) wanted me to move, and I said, ‘Look, I’m happy to move but you’re going to have to help me do that,’” said Stern. “And (Hale) said, ‘I’ll help you. But you’re going to have to guarantee that no other cannabis gets on that land.’ How can I do that? I don’t own the land. I can guarantee I can leave, but I can’t guarantee that no other cannabis gets on the land.”
Stern said he didn’t receive any official offer, but a resident disclosed that residents were willing to pay a large sum of money for the operation to move, but only under the agreement that future cannabis operations would not be allowed on the property.
Hale and other neighbors declined to comment regarding the mediation or his neighbor’s cannabis operation.
Stern said that the problems that neighbors and town officials presented to the state were nothing more than a way to mask an underlying “existential” and moral issue with cannabis cultivation.
“The issue is that we exist — just to be very clear — the issue is we exist. So, anything that is somewhat problematic has become a, ‘We’ll attack that, or we’ll attack this,’” said Stern. “It’s been everything, not just lights, but everything that we do has come under question. The state has come out and inspected us multiple times, and every time we pass because we’re following the regs.”
In addition to the lighting and nuisance issues, residents express some fear surrounding safety with pot growing on their street.
“I cannot imagine playing with my daughter in our front yard, a literal stone’s throw from a commercial-scale marijuana grow site, with her exposed to the smells. Never mind the potential for crime in the area,” Hale wrote in an email to Sen. Thomas Chittenden, D-Chittenden Southeast.
Hale, in the same email, said, “I appreciate a local (cannabis control) board cannot ban cannabis entirely within a municipality, but would these interventions be able to shut down a specific operation within the municipality if it was outside of compliance with a future such group or regulations?”
Banbury echoed some of the same concerns: “The lighting was a big issue specifically for closer neighbors. The safety element feels like an issue. It kind of does feel a bit like having a high-end liquor store with canvas sides in your neighborhood.”
“For me, it’s become an issue that is bigger than just addressing the (Red Clover Canopies) operation, but rather, can the town protect residents in general from this situation happening again in the future since the Cannabis Control Board is not in the business of being helpful to residents in any way,” Banbury said.
At a public hearing regarding the town’s adoption of cannabis-related land use regulations, both Banbury and Hale encouraged the town to implement stricter regulations, including increasing the proposed 200-foot buffer from cultivators’ property lines to a 500-foot buffer.
“I believe in the adage, ‘Good fences make good neighbors,’ and, with cannabis, a fence means distance,” Banbury said. “That’s the main way to protect neighbors from odors and other negative fallout. The state, itself, requires a 500-foot buffer for schools. What about homes with school-aged children? What about residents that act as home schools? I believe that a 500-foot buffer should apply to residences.”
Hale agreed: “I certainly support the decriminalization of cannabis in the state, and I think there’s a way to do this that won’t be hugely impactful on other people.”
Stern responded, “Dude, this is legal now. It’s not just about decriminalization, you need to get on board with the fact that it’s legal.”
Stern has since decided to pull his application for a Tier 2 permit and is instead sticking solely to his permitted Tier 1 license because, with Act 158, there is a level of protection from municipal oversight.
When Stern informed the planning and zoning office of his decision to rescind his application for a Tier 2 operation, town planner Larry Lewack said, “As I think you know, the town did not agree with or accept the Cannabis Control Board’s written findings last year regarding your business’s compliance with the terms of your Tier 1 license. And we continue to have concerns about your compliance with the Charlotte (land use regulation) performance standards for odor emissions and light spills outside the property boundary, if your planned 2023 operations will continue unchanged from last year.”
In response, a state Cannabis Control Board licensing agent, Raynald Carre, told Stern in an email, “As a reminder, the Town’s feelings about our rules interpretation are irrelevant.”
Although no official land use regulations have yet been approved in Charlotte, because the town formed a local cannabis control commission last year, Lewack emphasized, “(Stern) will need an affirmative local license decision from the Local Cannabis Control Commission in order to obtain final approval for (his) Tier 1 state license renewal for 2023. It’s my understanding that the selectboard, acting as the local control commission, will not act upon (his) application without feedback from this office on (his) compliance with the underlying land use regulations standards.”
Stern said he never got into cannabis cultivation to make anybody angry.
“Running into some of these (issues), it’s helped me see the truth that if you take a look at the perspective that’s been spun around cannabis, like ‘reefer madness’ and all that stuff that started in the ’30s — a very racially motivated, non-scientific view of what cannabis does to people — and then you hear from the mouths of the of the citizens who are supposedly educated, just trolling off a bunch of fabricated nonsense, quite frankly, first you want to go, ‘Well, let me explain.’ But then there’s no intelligent conversation it’s just this constant (refrain): ‘We don’t want you here, we don’t want you here.’”