Sale of Orchard for Marijuana Farm On Hold Amid Public Outcry

Charlton Orchards owner Nate Benjamin Jr. feels he's been left with no choice but to sell his business to a buyer that has proposed a cannabis farm.

"We've lost money for the last two years," he said.

Benjamin's once profitable Massachusetts apple orchard and winery have been decimated by both the economy and circumstances beyond his control.

"When we had a bad year in the fruits and vegetables, the winery always took over," Benjamin explained.

But in 2015, a fire destroyed the winery.

Benjamin knew it was time to make the difficult decision to sell the orchards that had been in the family for 21 years. And he found a buyer.

Valley Green Grow of North Andover wants to build an 800,000-to-1.5-million-square-foot greenhouse for cannabis research, as well as medical and recreational cultivation.

“All the outlining woods will still be here," Benjamin said. "Unless you're looking on Google Earth, you won't even know it’s up here."

The board of selectmen approved the host agreement with the town, but then neighbors complained they didn't have a say.

"It's right in my backyard, right up there, and I'm like, 'Are you serious?'" said Valerie Haley.

"I just think it's wrong, only because all of the children I’ve seen in this area that are addicted to drugs," added Diana Thrush.

"When we realized the mistake that we made, we did not sign the contract, so that the citizens could have more information about what was going on," said John McGrath, the chairman of the board of selectmen.

But town officials say the voters previously approved cannabis and the board of selectmen's ability to sign host agreements without additional voter approval or public comment.

"My alternative is I have a couple of developers that have been talking to us for years and they want to put houses here," Benjamin said. "It's kind of the last thing we want to see happen."

An attorney for Valley Green Grow said in a statement, "Because of the nature of the cannabis industry, everything goes through a robust vetting process with lots of steps along the way in that vetting process. This is just part of those steps in the six-to-12-month process."

Town officials say this project alone could provide $6 million in revenue from taxes and fees annually to the town budget – increasing it by 20 percent.

The next town meeting on this issue is set for June 19.

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