WASHINGTON — Voters approved a moratorium banning recreational marijuana retail sales in town, similar to one they rejected last year, following extensive debate Saturday at Town Meeting.

The approximately 50 voters at the 2.5-hour meeting also approved town spending proposals and agreed to change one word in an ordinance setting the process that town officials must follow in disposing of properties taken by the town when property owners fall behind on their taxes, changing “shall dispose of property by public auction,” to “may dispose of property by public auction.”

The proposed 180-day moratorium on recreational marijuana retail sales and social clubs, a proposal rejected by voters at last year’s Town Meeting, drew the most debate, with voters approving a moratorium after rejecting, in a 26-22 vote, a proposal offered by Budget Committee member David Martucci. Martucci suggested that instead of implementing a moratorium, voters could direct selectmen to appoint a committee to study the issue and come back with recommended rules for such establishments in town.

Martucci argued a moratorium isn’t necessary because the state still hasn’t passed rules and regulations for retail recreational marijuana businesses, despite a 2016 referendum that legalized marijuana use by adults. He said moratoriums should be used only for emergencies.

“Here we are again. I’m still confused, because I’m not sure what the emergency is,” Martucci said. “We didn’t have an emergency a year ago, because the state hadn’t passed any rules and regulations; and now the state still hasn’t, so these places can’t operate legally anyway.”

Other residents, including Don Grinnell, also a Budget Committee member, argued the town should have a moratorium so it has time to put rules in place in case the state finally approves regulations, to avoid having someone submit an application for a retail marijuana business before the town has its own rules in place.

Selectman Thomas Johnston said the Maine Municipal Association and the town’s legal advisor recommended the town take action to prevent a retail recreational marijuana business from potentially seeking to open a business in Washington after the state passes statewide regulations but before the town sets local regulations on such businesses.

“Is this an emergency?” Johnston asked, rhetorically. “I think to some people, it may reflect that.”

Residents eventually voted in favor of a suggestion from Grinnell, approving the moratorium but directing the selectmen to appoint a committee to study the issue and make recommendations on how to regulate retail recreational marijuana businesses.

Voters approved the appropriation of $17,750 for cemetery maintenance, following debate prompted by Budget Committee member Dorothy Sainio, who made a motion to cut that amount by $5,000 because, she said, most cemeteries in town have trust funds that generate revenue, together totaling around $12,500, which the town should use for maintenance.

Selectman Wesley Daniel said the $17,750 in town money for cemetery maintenance would pay for cleanup and mowing, and the revenue generated by individual cemetery trust funds generally are used when larger expenses come up in a cemetery, such as when a tree needs to be removed.

Residents approved an amendment proposed by Grinnell to change the word “shall” to “may” in an article specifying how town officials dispose of property acquired because of delinquent property tax payments. The article authorizes selectmen to dispose of such property 60 days after offering to sell the property back to its former owners for the amount owed in back taxes, interest and other costs, if that offer is not accepted. The change means selectmen may sell, but are not required to sell, such properties at public auction.

Grinnell said the change should help the town avoid bad publicity, citing a case in Albion in which an elderly couple’s home was seized and sold for nonpayment of taxes, which angered Gov. Paul LePage and prompted him to submit legislation. Also, Grinnell said, seizing and selling residents’ property “is something we don’t need to do in this town. There are other ways to take care of it.”

Residents all agreed to accept, as town property, West Washington Cemetery from the private West Washington Cemetery Association.

Jesse Casas, a member of the association, said the association has a trust fund to generate money to maintain the cemetery, but it doesn’t generate much money, and the association was having an increasingly hard time maintaining the cemetery, which he said was the last independently owned cemetery in town. He said the town does a great job maintaining its other cemeteries and he is confident it will do the same with West Washington Cemetery.

At the start of the meeting, Daniel presented Peg Hobbs, a co-chairwoman of the Recreation Committee, with the Spirit of America Award, noting she was instrumental in the completion of an equipment building at the local ballfields, helped put a fence up on the soccer field, weeds gardens at the library and started a Monday morning walking group.

In local elections Friday, incumbent Berkley Linscott, who was unopposed, was re-elected as a selectman, and Staci Bowman, with 48 votes, defeated Daniel Furrow, who received 38 votes, for a three-year term on the Regional School Unit 40 board.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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