OLD SAYBROOK – In a call to CT Examiner yesterday, Fine Fettle CEO Ben Zachs said he was confident that his proposed marijuana dispensary off Interstate 95 will receive its state permit, and will open for business if the project receives local zoning approval.
Connecticut-based Fine Fettle operates dispensaries in Massachusetts and medical marijuana dispensaries in Connecticut. The company is applying for a special exception from the Old Saybrook Zoning Commission to open a 12-register dispensary at 233 Boston Post Road.
While the company needs zoning approval to operate in Old Saybrook, Zachs said he was confident that Fine Fettle would receive a state license to operate the dispensary because the dispensary is an “equity joint venture,” Zachs said.
Responding to an story published Tuesday by CT Examiner quoting Old Saybrook First Selectman Carl Fortuna, who said it would not be easy to get a state license for a marijuana dispensary, Zachs said that while that is true for many hopeful applicants who are seeking local zoning approval around the state, Fine Fettle will be able to secure a state license.
There are three ways to secure a dispensary license as Connecticut rolls out legalized sales of marijuana, Zachs said. One option is for a company to enter a state lottery where thousands of applicants are competing for a handful of permits.
Another option is for companies that are already operating medical dispensaries, which can apply for permission to make their medical dispensaries into “hybrid” dispensaries that serve both medical marijuana patients and general customers. Fine Fettle is taking this approach with its medical dispensaries in Stamford, Newington and Willimantic, Zachs said.
The third option is for existing marijuana retailers, like Fine Fettle, to partner with a social equity applicant who lives in a state-defined “disproportionately impacted area,” and apply together as an equity joint venture.
“Those licenses, you don’t have to win them, you don’t need to enter a lottery for them” Zachs said. “As long as our structure is approved, we are given them by right.”
Fine Fettle hasn’t had the structure of its dispensary joint equity ventures approved yet, but Zachs said that is a matter of when, not if. CohnReznick is reviewing applications on behalf of the Social Equity Council, to evaluate if the social equity partner meets income and residency requirements, and if they are given enough ownership and control of the venture, Zachs said.
If the structure of its joint equity venture meets the state requirements its application will be approved, Zachs said. If it isn’t approved, Fine Fettle can re-apply until it is, he said. Fine Fettle has already been approved for a social equity cultivator license, so he said he’s confident they will meet the requirements for dispensaries.
The equity joint ventures are each granted two licenses for every existing dispensary they own – so Fine Fettle can secure up to six licenses, two for each of its medical dispensaries in Connecticut.
The company has one location with local approval in Manchester, the location in Old Saybrook, and is looking for four other locations, Zachs said. By law, equity-joint-venture dispensaries owned by a single company cannot be located within 20 miles of each other, which makes finding locations a challenge, he said.
Zachs declined to name his social equity partner, who he said is required to have at least 50 percent equity in the venture as well as a key decision-making role, which he explained as a matter of protecting the safety and privacy of his partner. Zachs noted that marijuana remains illegal on the federal level.
At a recent hearing in Old Saybrook, the reception to application was mixed, with some residents supportive of a new business that will bring revenue for the town, and some vocal opponents with concerns about traffic and safety – including Police Chief Michael Spera who warned his department would need to expand if a dispensary is opened in town.
On Monday, the town’s zoning commission continued a public hearing on the dispensary until September to give the company time to address questions about traffic concerns that could come from increased activity at the location, which directly abuts the Route 1 off-ramp from Interstate 95 south.
Zachs said he was not surprised by the concerns of some residents because Fine Fettle has encountered similar concerns when seeking approval in other towns, and because marijuana is an unknown and new industry in Connecticut.
“There’s a lot of concerns that are totally valid, but I think the history of operating across the country has shown that a lot of these are upfront concerns and are not as big of an issue as time goes on,” Zachs said.
He said Fine Fettle is working on a larger, peer-reviewed traffic study after zoning commissioners questioned the completeness of a traffic impact letter submitted with its application. Zachs said the estimated traffic of 40 to 45 customers an hour was much smaller than something like a grocery store, and that it could be managed by working together with the town and police.
“We don’t want to just say, ‘Hey, this is what it is,’” Zachs said. “We’d much rather have a conversation around, how can we help mitigate that and how can we plan for it.”
Despite comments made by Spera to the zoning commission on Monday night, Zachs said that the dispensary would not lead to nuisance odors.
According to Zachs, about 65 percent of its products will be edibles or concentrates that don’t smell of marijuana, and the packaged product would be held in a vault with eight inches of concrete, in a building with charcoal filters in its HVAC system. Zachs said that purchases aren’t allowed to be opened or consumed on site.
“The smell just doesn’t come up from these retail facilities in the way that people generally worry about,” Zachs said.
The proposed location on the Boston Post Road received zoning approval for a medical marijuana dispensary in 2018, but it did not receive a state license to operate. Regulations the zoning commission approved earlier this year limited potential marijuana dispensaries to the two locations in town where medical dispensaries had previously been granted zoning approval.
Zachs said that, in addition to the specific property being defined in the town’s zoning for marijuana, Old Saybrook is a good location for the business because there is a gap on the shoreline in Middlesex County.
“We think Old Saybrook and the shoreline is a good market,” Zachs said. “There’s a dispensary in Groton and there’s one in Branford, so to be in between that we think is going to bring good access.”
This story has been updated to clarify that the 20-mile exclusion applies only to dispensaries owned by a single company