AYER -- The town could become among the first communities in the state to have a medical marijuana dispensary, or conversely, a Shirley man who wants to open a business on Central Avenue might have to wait a year or more to apply for the zoning permits.
That was the message that could be read between the lines during a brief early-morning Board of Selectmen's meeting on Friday.
Just three of the board members and the town administrator showed up for the meeting, which followed a Planning Board public hearing Thursday night that ran for more than two hours.
At issue during the hearing was whether or not the Planning Board would recommend a moratorium on dispensaries. Across Massachusetts, towns and cities have been voting for moratoriums, presumably to buy time, although they may not ban the businesses, allowed under state law.
In Ayer, voters at the Special Town Meeting on June 24 will make the decision.
The Planning Board will recommend a 90-day stay, while selectmen plan to introduce a warrant article authored by the town attorney that would enforce a 12-month moratorium.
Selectman convened on Friday to vote on the moratorium and a request from Tax Collector John Canney II, made at their Tuesday meeting, to extend employment for the assistant tax collector.
The board had asked Canney for more information about the request, including the assistant's rate of pay and hours. The board agreed, pending approval by the Finance Committee, to extend the assistant's employment through June 30, at a cost to the town of $91.21.
Officials said they were pressed to hold the early-morning meeting following the Planning Board's vote on Thursday night. Under state law, the town must post any warrant articles no later than 14 days before the Town Meeting.
Several people were in the audience, including Shirley resident John Hillier, who wants to open Compassionate Care, a nonprofit medical marijuana dispensary that would be located on Central Avenue.
Hillier's attorney, Chris Lilly, attempted to ask a question about the moratorium the board approved. But the board chair dismissed his query, saying the meeting was limited to the two items on the agenda.
After the meeting, Lilly said he wanted to ask why the board's article differs from the Planning Board's recommendation; the latter would require a three-month wait rather than the year established in the proposed warrant.
After the vote, Conley explained to a reporter that the meeting had been strictly procedural: "By state law, the warrant must be posted 14 days before the special election," she said, explaining the urgency for the meeting, and its brevity.
Conley said the board had approved the moratorium article written by the town's lawyer, but she stressed that voters would have the chance to amend it.
In recent days, communities across Massachusetts have been having similar conversations, with Middlesex, Norfolk and Suffolk counties appearing to be the most receptive to medical-marijuana dispensaries.
Last November, 63 percent of the state's voters approved a ballot question that would allow the legalization of marijuana for medical conditions, including cancer. The law allows the state to license up to 35 dispensaries to provide medical marijuana to patients certified by their doctors and permits up to five dispensaries in a county.
Some observers predict that dispensaries could be operating in Massachusetts by the end of the year..
Under the law, communities may delay the application process, but they don't have the power to bar registered dispensaries. Attorney General Martha Coakley has given towns the option to adopt a 12-to 18 moratorium, saying this would give officials time to create new zoning laws.
That was clear to members of the Planning Board on Thursday night during the public hearing.
"In my opinion, sooner or later, marijuana is going to be legal," said Planning Board Chairman Mark Fermanian. "Now we have an opportunity for uncontrolled versus legally controlled. But it's definitely going to be a tough balancing act."