Police Chief Calls Approving Marijuana Sales in Old Saybrook ‘Negligent,’ Warns of Costs

233 Boston Post Road in Old Saybrook, the proposed location of a Fine Fettle marijuana dispensary (CT Examiner)

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OLD SAYBROOK – At a public hearing on Monday night, Police Chief Michael Spera said that the town’s Zoning Commission would be “negligent” to approve a proposed marijuana dispensary that he warned would create a major public safety concern and require expanding the Old Saybrook Police Department.

Fine Fettle – which operates marijuana dispensaries in Massachusetts, and medical marijuana dispensaries in Stamford, Newington and Willimantic – is applying for a special exception for a dispensary at 233 Boston Post Road, directly adjacent to the Route 1 off-ramp from Interstate 95 south.

Ben Zachs, CEO of Fine Fettle, said the heavily-regulated and secure dispensary – which would also need to obtain a state license in a highly-competitive process – would have 12 registers to serve about 35-40 customers an hour from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m – after an initial rush of about 55 per hour when it first opens. He said the dispensary could control the flow of traffic to the site by requiring customers to pre-order to pick up at an allotted time.

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Zachs assured the commission and concerned members of the public at the Zoning Commission meeting on Monday night that, if approved, the company would work with the town, community and police to limit any impacts as much as possible. 

But Spera said Zachs’ assurances didn’t resolve his concerns about traffic around the busy off-ramp and public safety issues.

“I have little doubt that, if approved, the Fine Fettle dispensary will require a dramatic increase in public safety services, and a corresponding increase of public safety expenditures for Old Saybrook taxpayers,” Spera said.

Spera said that, based on what he’s heard from other communities, he expects an increase in larcenies, disputes and traffic accidents, and that the police department will need to keep a presence around the dispensary.

Spera said that will require additional police officers to expand the town’s “currently right-sized” force.

Spera opposed a proposal for a medical marijuana dispensary in 2018 that ultimately gained local approval, but was not awarded a license from the state. Spera said that he still has “grave public safety concerns,” which have solidified after hearing from law enforcement leaders across the country who said dispensaries brought increased crime, increased driving under the influence and medical emergencies.

Amy Souchuns, the attorney representing Fine Fettle in its application, said the company was aware of Spera’s “long-standing philosophical opposition” to a dispensary, and had reached out to him several times to talk about his concerns – which Spera declined to do before sharing his concerns with the commission.

“We wanted to have the opportunity to be able to say we expect there might be some higher traffic volumes or there might be some concerns you want us to address,” Souchuns said. “He obviously has no obligation to meet with us ahead of the meeting.”

On Monday, Spera outlined his philosophical and moral opposition to marijuana, saying a dispensary doesn’t represent the “character, ethics or moral compass” of Old Saybrook. But he also took issue with the proposed location near a busy intersection, a daycare center, and across Interstate 95 from a residential neighborhood.

“Think of how far away you can smell a delicious barbeque,” Spera said. “Now, think of the sickening smell of mass quantities of marijuana reaching the same distance.”

Zachs said sealed packaging and air filters would keep the smell of raw marijuana from spreading that far, and that nobody was allowed to smoke or consume marijuana on the dispensary property, Spera said it was the police who would be left to enforce that.

“Who will actually police that?” Spera said. “Who will monitor whether people are pulling over their cars and smoking on the side of the road, or walking down Route 1 and smoking the marijuana that they get?”

Spera and some commissioners also questioned how the intersection would be able to handle increased traffic from the dispensary, with the police chief saying the intersection would need to be redesigned with a traffic light to work.

Commission Vice Chair Mark Caldarella said he travels by that intersection several times a day, and said there are a “ton of possibilities for accidents” because of how it’s configured and drivers rolling through stop signs merging onto Boston Post Road.

Caldarella and Spera were not convinced by the company’s traffic engineer, David Sullivan of SLR, whose assessment said that additional traffic would be “moderate” and would have little impact because there is already a high volume of traffic on Boston Post Road. 

“It’s completely different vehicular throughput on Route 1,” Spera said of the more than 400 customers a day turning in and out of the parking lot onto Boston Post Road. “When those vehicles are braking, signaling, turning against traffic, turning with traffic – that’s a complete disruption.”

The commission asked Fine Fettle to provide a more detailed analysis of the traffic impacts of the dispensary, and to evaluate if anything can be improved about the “y”-shaped intersection. The commission then continued the public hearing to its Sept. 7 meeting to give Fine Fettle time to respond to commissioners’ questions.

Speaking to CT Examiner before the meeting, Old Saybrook First Selectman Carl Fortuna said that he would to let the Zoning Commission complete its review of the application before commenting on the Fine Fettle application. 

“It’s legal in the state of Connecticut, but it’s not going to be easy to get licenses to sell it, medically or recreationally,” Fortuna said. “There’s a lot of firms that are positioning themselves, so we’ll see where it goes.”