CHARLTON — Three years have passed since the night Nathan Benjamin Jr. watched his barn and winery burn to the ground, flames spreading uncontrollably as firefighters struggled for hours to find a suitable source of water near his orchard in this rural Central Massachusetts town.
Now, Benjamin’s Charlton Orchards Farm & Winery is at the center of another conflagration: a startlingly vicious fight over a plan to construct one of the country’s largest marijuana farms on the property.
The debate has its origins in the 2015 fire that destroyed the orchard’s winery, knocking out the farm’s main source of revenue and prompting Benjamin’s mortgage lender to claim much of the resulting insurance payout. With little money left to rebuild, Benjamin decided to sell and move on.
But the potential buyer, Valley Green Grow, has no intention of offering tractor rides, hard cider tastings, or pick-your-own apples. Instead, it wants to level off the hilltop orchard and construct a $100 million, 1-million-square-foot marijuana cultivation and processing facility with six indoor greenhouses, protected by fortress-like security and replete with its own gas-fired 18-megawatt power plant.
If it wins local approval for the gargantuan project, Valley Green Grow has promised the town a windfall nearly as large: up to $7 million annually, plus $500,000 up front to fund the design of a new police and fire station.
The farm’s neighbors, however, aren’t buying that sales pitch. They’ve launched an all-out assault against Benjamin, town officials, and Valley Green Grow, arguing that the industrial-style facility shouldn’t be allowed on an agricultural property and accusing Charlton’s elected leaders of negotiating the payments in secret. They also say the project could be an environmental “nightmare,” and claim it will dent the value of nearby homes and damage the town’s reputation.
The war now includes multiple lawsuits, a dizzying series of contradictory bylaws, and mutual accusations of bad faith.
“This has been one of the most nasty processes I’ve ever seen, and this is what I do for a living,” said Jonathan Silverstein, a veteran municipal attorney at the firm KP Law who represents Charlton in marijuana-related matters. “People have called the selectmen ‘crooks’ and yelled at them during public meetings.”
Valley Green Grow, headed by Dr. Jeff Goldstein, is the same company that was denied permission for a similar operation in North Andover earlier this year. The company’s Charlton complex would house five smaller licensed recreational and medical marijuana operators as tenants, offering a turnkey option for companies that would rather pay rent and share costs than spend millions building their own growing and processing facilities.
The company plans to grow marijuana in the sixth greenhouse and forge ahead with research on the drug’s medical uses.
“Our goal is to build a comprehensive, state-of-the-art facility so people wouldn’t need $20 million to come in — they would just need a license and a willingness to pay rent,” said Michael Rosen, the company’s attorney.
While Valley Green Grow has already signed its contract with the town, the project still faces hurdles, including winning a state license from the Cannabis Control Commission and securing a number of local permits and approval from Charlton’s Planning Board.
The company must also face down opponents of the project, who are trying everything to stop it.
Several nearby residents sued the town this summer for allegedly violating the state’s Open Meeting Law. They contend an agenda posted in advance of a public meeting at which Charlton selectmen voted to approve the contract with Valley Green Grow was insufficiently detailed. They have asked a judge to invalidate the deal between the company and the town.
“It was a dirty deal,” said Gerard Russell, a newspaper editor who owns a home near Charlton Orchards and is one of the plaintiffs in the suit. “They’re trying to shut us up and deny us a voice.”
Silverstein, Charlton’s lawyer, said the complaint is groundless and will almost certainly be dismissed by the Worcester Superior Court judge overseeing the case. He argued that the notice used standard language and that residents simply weren’t paying attention.
Silverstein noted that Charlton’s selectmen responded to criticism about the process by holding two additional public hearings before signing the agreement. Benjamin said those meetings “were more like screaming matches.”
“All they’re doing is continuing to delay the project,” Benjamin said. “Someone complains about an issue, and no sooner do we fix it than somebody else complains. The sadness of it is that everything they’re complaining about has been proven false.”
In addition to the lawsuit, critics of Valley Green Grow also have moved to change the town’s zoning scheme so marijuana companies could not be located on agricultural-residential properties such as Charlton Orchards. But the company earlier this year filed a subdivision plan for the property, which, according to the town, means the project is grandfathered in.
Then, residents at Town Meeting in August approved a general bylaw banning all recreational marijuana facilities in Charlton. Under state law, that decision must by confirmed by a townwide referendum that likely won’t be held until next May.
Even if voters affirm the ban bylaw, Silverstein said, it probably won’t stick, since the measure received the support of only a simple majority of Town Meeting voters, not the two-thirds majority typically required to enact a zoning-type rule. The office of Attorney General Maura Healey also cautioned the town that the ban could probably be overturned.
Valley Green Grow has filed a lawsuit in state Land Court challenging the validity of the bylaw. Russell and other abutters have said they will seek to intervene in that suit and ask a court to uphold the ban.
Opponents also have raised questions about the legality of Valley Green Grow’s promised payments to Charlton, which vastly exceed controversial limits on the value of contracts between marijuana operators and municipalities. And they are further trying to bog down Valley Green Grow by swamping the town Planning Board’s review of the project with complaints.
At a planning meeting last month, several dozen residents clutching stacks of environmental regulations and rolled-up maps of the Charlton Orchards property quizzed representatives of the company about everything from traffic to odors coming from the facility.
Charlton planning officials pledged to hold numerous hearings on each area of concern, signaling the process would drag on for months yet.
“This thing is way too big,” Kent Howard, a nearby homeowner, testified at the planning meeting. “It’s going to harm me, it’s going to harm 100 people on my street, at least.”
Howard asked officials to consider whether they wanted Charlton to be known for hosting one of the country’s biggest marijuana facilities, or for its schools.
Benjamin is impatient with such rhetoric. For him, the debate carries personal weight. His 20-year-old daughter suffers from drug-resistant epilepsy, and Benjamin said her doctors earlier this year reluctantly recommended that she try cannabis after a series of pharmaceutical drugs either failed to treat her seizures or caused heavy sedation and other unacceptable side effects.
Benjamin decried the federal government’s continued prohibition on marijuana, which it classifies alongside heroin as a “Schedule 1” drug — with no accepted medical use and a “high potential for abuse.”
“Maybe if marijuana wasn’t a Schedule 1 drug, my daughter would have been 9 when she had her last seizure,” he said.
Pivoting to the controversy over his farm’s sale, Benjamin added, “What’s wrong with Charlton being at the forefront of medical marijuana research? So what? Charlton used to be known in Boston as a cow town, because we raised cattle here — wouldn’t it be great if we were known as a biotech community?” Opponents of Valley Green Grow, he concluded, “are just afraid of the word ‘marijuana.’ ”
Russell, however, insisted his camp’s opposition is based strictly on the impact the facility would have on the neighborhood and town.
“We’re not antimarijuana,” he said. “We certainly see the medical benefits of cannabis, and we’re not fighting the vote that was taken in 2016. That’s not what this is about. This is about the wrong project in the wrong location.”