Update 10:10 p.m.: A typo on a quote attribution has been amended.
Update 9 a.m.: Additional information regarding Westford’s tobacco regulations has been added and updated.
WESTFORD — Attendees packed the Millennium School for a third public hearing regarding a proposed bylaw that could regulate future firearms businesses in Westford on Monday night.
The Planning Board, Select Board, Board of Health and Town Counsel participated in discussions on the proposal on Aug. 21. Both the Planning Board and Select Board co-sponsor the proposal.
A ‘public health issue’
Members of the Board of Health also participated in the public hearing, citing concerns over firearms as a matter of public health.
“It’s a public health issue, the number of shops we have in town is relevant to the Board of Health,” Board of Health Chair Stephanie Granger said.
The board appeared to support the current setback of 500 feet, saying these setbacks are “completely in line and consistent with other setbacks in place.”
“Tobacco setbacks are 500 feet [and] marijuana shops are 500 feet. I cannot see a reason we would not have at least a 500-foot setback from schools and such,” Granger added.
Under current regulations, tobacco sales are not permitted within 500 feet of a public or private school within Westford.
Concerns raised over special permits
The members of the Board of Health also cited concerns over the number of special permits allowed under the draft bylaw, as well as a clause allowing the Planning Board to add additional permits under limited circumstances.
Under the draft proposal, four special permits are permitted, but the Planning Board may add additional permits by a two-thirds vote.
“We felt that if somebody came before us and a need was not met, that we could grant an additional license to that person to fill that need,” Planning Board Chair Michael Bonenfant said.
Director of Land Use Management Jeffrey Morrissette told officials that the department settled on a total of four permits by adding three total license types (selling firearms, selling ammunition, and gunsmithing) together and dividing them by the total number of communities in Massachusetts for an average of approximately 3.67 permits per town.
Granger drew comparisons to their regulatory authority over tobacco businesses while also noting concerns that increasing the number of available special permits should “be a town opinion, not the opinion of four.”
The Board of Health currently regulates Tobacco Sales Permits in Westford, with the board issuing a total of 20 Tobacco Sales Permits per year.
Board members noted that permits are “grandfathered,” where if a business closes, the permit is no longer available for use.
“It’s limited and it’s grandfathered so if someone goes out, it goes out,” Granger said. “We drop that number every time a business closes.”
As of July 1, 2020, new regulations allow for a gradual reduction in Tobacco Sales Permits.
“Any permit that is surrendered, not renewed, or revoked, shall be returned to the Westford Board of Health and shall be permanently retired by the Board of Health and the total allowable number of Tobacco Product Sales Permits under paragraph (a) shall be reduced by the number of such permits,” the regulation reads.
Under the current draft proposal, should a non-profit sportsmen’s club apply to open a firearms business in addition to their current use, that business would not count toward the town’s total number of special permits.
Rather, the Zoning Board of Appeals would have the authority to determine whether or not that use is “substantially” detrimental to the neighborhood, as existing clubs are pre-existing non-conforming uses that predate zoning.
“There’s a standard whether the Zoning Board of Appeals determines whether or not it was substantially more detrimental to the neighborhood,” Town Counsel Justin Perrotta told board members.
He added, “The ZBA has a fair amount of discretion on that determination. Not just for firearms, [but] for any time the ZBA determines whether something is more detrimental to the neighborhood.”
Residents remain divided
Attendees offered new perspectives on the proposal and elevated previous concerns to the Select Board, Planning Board and Board of Health.
Resident Paul Fassbender addressed a message in the packet regarding potential applicants “making [a firearms business] more attractive” to consumers if they see fit, with one approach being to build a large retail store.
Fassbender fears the current 60,000-square-foot limitation for retail services in Westford would likely apply to firearms businesses under the current proposal. He questioned whether this is “appropriate for firearms businesses [in Westford].”
“In this business, it is possible for something huge to come in…can we set a reasonable size limit on that [the bylaw] to keep a monster from showing up [in Westford]? Do we need a second step for this or do we need to work through these potential long-term issues at a later date?”
He added, “a bylaw shouldn’t [only] solve our problems today. It should solve our problems next year, in five years, and in ten years”
Resident Meghan O’Connell acknowledged “high emotions on both sides.” She also addressed state regulations, such as red flag laws, as evidence of the state taking further precautions and “doing things to suppress it [gun violence].”
O’Connell, a transgender woman, also worries that her right to defend herself could be restricted.
“Day after day, my right to live and exist has been challenged and restricted in states across this country…So when I see and hear my right to defend myself being restricted, it touches a wrong nerve,” O’Connell said.
She also responded to residents who claim “everyone wants to do something,” to regulate firearms businesses.
“Don’t pretend you speak for me…don’t make it sound like every resident wants to do something,” she said
She questioned, “does this [issue] represent the town or does it represent your fears? That’s what I think this is all about, a reaction to fear.”
Resident and First Middlesex Republican State Committeewoman Kathy Lynch spoke on “the intent of the second amendment.”
“Guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens are meant for hunting, sport, and most importantly self-defense…it’s not the gun that’s the issue. Criminals can find many ways to kill. It’s evil intent that is the issue,” Lynch said.
Resident Al Prescott responded to a previous comment of resident Gloria Miller in which she expressed concern over the town having “more options to purchase a gun than a bra.”
“I was walking through Cabela’s the other day, and guess what they’re having a clearance sale on,” Prescott said.
Miller encouraged the boards to allow for additional special permits to be added through a vote at Town Meeting, as opposed to through the Planning Board. This way, she says, does not force the Planning Board to “be in the middle of this debate.”
“I think we all agree a bylaw that has provisions is better for our town and community than no bylaw. We respect that there are second amendment issues that are highly relevant and very heated and distinct opinions on both sides,” she said.
She added, “it just so happens that both sides of this issue seem to like the number two.”
Other regulated businesses
Westford’s zoning bylaw restricts or prohibits a number of other businesses within town.
A number of businesses already require a special permit from either the Zoning Board of Appeals or the Planning Board.
Commercial uses that are not allowed as of right in any zoning district that must receive a special permit include body art establishments, adult entertainment and drive-through facilities among others.
Adult entertainment facilities are permitted along Route 110 and have a setback requirement of 750 feet from schools, residential districts, churches or places of worship, businesses where alcoholic beverages are sold or served and other adult entertainment facilities.
Morrissette noted that though adult entertainment is not prohibited, his department has not undergone an exercise to determine where a business could potentially open.
“Residential districts could be a considerable variable [in that],” he said.
The town also places limits on other forms of businesses, such as Registered Marijuana Dispensaries, which are permitted in the Medical Marijuana Overlay District along sections of Route 110 and Route 40. However, under current zoning restrictions, only one RMD could be permitted within town at any given time.
Additionally, recreational marijuana facilities are explicitly prohibited in the Town of Westford, while massage facilities are not permitted in any zoning district.
The next public hearing will be held on Sept. 18 at 7 p.m. Discussions on the proposal are also planned for the Sept. 12 Select Board Meeting. Catch up on the first and second public hearings with WestfordCAT news below.