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East Haddam Officials Push to Prohibit Marijuana Businesses, Vote to Deny Application for Retail Store

EAST HADDAM – Marijuana may be legal in Connecticut, but elected officials here are moving on two fronts that could potentially prevent it from ever being sold commercially in town.

Tuesday, the Planning and Zoning Commission unanimously denied an application from a local developer to open what would be the town’s first retail marijuana store at one of its busiest intersections – citing concerns that the shop would bring even more traffic to the area. 

At the same time, the new First Selectman is pushing for a public vote that could not only prohibit retail sale of marijuana, but ban many other commercial aspects of the industry sprouting up around it. 

“This new strain of marijuana is very dangerous and I don’t see a need for it in our town,” First Selectman Irene Haines said, noting that she voted against legalization at the State Capitol last year in her role as state representative. “I’m dead set against it and I’m perfectly fine with saying that.”

Haines, a Republican, is aiming to hold a public hearing on the issue next month that would lead to a vote at a town meeting or by referendum on an ordinance that would decide how the town handles marijuana on a variety of levels.  

The zoning commission on Tuesday did not debate the merits of marijuana itself, but decided that developer Robert Casner’s application to open a retail shop in a building he owns at the intersection of routes 82 and 151 was not complete because it failed to address its potential impact on traffic.

The commission earlier Tuesday received reports from town attorneys and a land-use official that said marijuana shops can be expected to produce up to five times more traffic than other retail operations.

Casner, who heads the town’s economic development commission, wants to open the shop between a package store and an architect’s office that now occupy the 382 Town Street building, which sits adjacent to Two Wrasslin’ Cats Café and across from the Town Tavern. 

“It’s a different usage and more people would be coming to it,” commission Chairman Crary Brownell said before the vote. “We don’t know if the site can handle it at this point.” 

Local attorney Scott Jezek, representing Casner, argued that he had not had time to review the reports citing the traffic concerns. 

“You have two lengthy documents that I don’t even have time to read and fully comprehend,” he told Brownell. “It’s patently unfair.”

Casner submitted his application to open the shop in late October, before the zoning board voted in November to impose a moratorium on such businesses until June.

He was seeking a “special exception” to retail regulations to open the 300-square-foot shop.

Casner also would have needed his plan to be approved by the state Department of Consumer Protection, to which he has applied for a license required to open a marijuana business. 

Because state regulations allow only a single marijuana shop in towns with a population of less than 25,000, East Haddam would have to more than double in size before a second shop could open. 

No state decisions on licenses are expected until late next year. 

Casner, who was not at the meeting, said Wednesday that he found the denial “perplexing.” 

“The Commission has never, to my knowledge, demanded a traffic study – which costs approximately $5,000 – for use of an existing retail commercial building on a state highway,” he said by email. “Actions such as this by the Commission create confrontational relationships between prospective investors and business owners and the town.”

Meanwhile, Haines at last week’s selectmen’s meeting introduced a proposed ordinance that would prohibit marijuana “producers, dispensary facilities, cultivators, micro-cultivators, retailers, hybrid retailers, food and beverage manufacturers, product manufacturers, product packagers, delivery services or transporters for commercial services.” 

Haines is hoping to hold a public hearing on the ordinance in early February, followed by a vote by town meeting or referendum that could be paired with the town budget referendum in early June.

Casner said he may appeal the zoning commission’s ruling against his project, depending on what happens at the public hearing.

“I’m hoping for a good turnout so we can hear all sides of the issue,” he said Wednesday. “After the hearing, I will be deciding on the appeal.”

Selectman Theresa Govert, a Democrat, said the proposed ordinance may be overly restrictive. 

“The retail side is one aspect,” she said, adding that state law will soon allow residents to grow a limited number of plants and that there may be farmers in town interested in raising a marijuana crop for profit. “This is a major conversation that our community wants to engage in. I just think that we need more information about the impact it would have on potential industry in our town.”

Public comment about the issue at board meetings in recent months has been largely against the sale of marijuana, and focused on its potential negative impact on young people. 

“What we’re doing to our youth by saying you can do this is why I voted no in Hartford,” Haines said. “If we have farmers who are looking to cultivate this or people cultivating their own plants it’s obviously legal. But to put this out there for our town scares me to pieces.” 

Haines said she put the issue on the selectmen’s meeting agenda at the request of Mark Thiede, the owner of the café that abuts the site of Casner’s proposed shop and a vocal opponent of it. 

“I realize it’s all legal and this is an important part of Connecticut’s financial future, I guess,” he said. “But this really is something that perhaps this community can do without. It’s not an uncommon feeling across the community based on my customers’ discussions with me.”

One resident who spoke at the selectmen’s meeting said those comments and Thiede’s opposition may not represent the majority view of residents.

“I think you overestimate your personal feelings and those of your customers as opposed to the way the town might feel about such exclusionary tactics,” resident Kim Dodge said to Thiede and the board. “I think it sets a dangerous precedent to set a prohibition on a specific area like that. Why not put a prohibition on package stores in town? Why not put a prohibition on Wrasslin’ Cats pushing caffeine? It sort of violates equal protection doesn’t it?”

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