OLD SAYBROOK – Traffic issues have been at the center of the debate over whether to approve a marijuana dispensary on the Boston Post Road just off Interstate 95, but Zoning Commission Chair Robert Friedmann warned on Wednesday that traffic concerns wouldn’t be sufficient reason for the commission to reject the proposal.
Fine Fettle, which operates dispensaries in Massachusetts and medical marijuana dispensaries in Connecticut, is applying for permission from the Old Saybrook Zoning Commission to open a dispensary at 233 Boston Post Road, which sits adjacent to an off-ramp of Interstate 95 south.
The company was awarded its state license earlier on Wednesday, attorney Amy Souchons told the commission – an outcome Fine Fettle CEO Ben Zachs previously told CT Examiner was guaranteed thanks in part to its existing medical dispensaries in Connecticut.
But Fine Fettle still needs local zoning approval, and at a public hearing on Wednesday some nearby residents voiced strong opposition to the proposal, some opposing any marijuana business in Old Saybrook, and others objecting to the location, traffic impacts and parking constraints.
Greg Del Rio, a traffic engineer contracted by Old Saybrook, said that Fine Fettle’s traffic analysis was “appropriate” and that the traffic impacts on Route 1 were considered “acceptable,” though he acknowledged the common feeling that the I-95 off-ramp created a dangerous intersection.
“From our own observations, not all the vehicles stop today. They kind of glide through the stop sign,” Del Rio said. “And all of a sudden, you get someone who does make the stop, and that’s probably what’s causing the rear end [crashes at the intersection].”
Souchons said that, since the intersection is outside Fine Fettle’s property, the commission couldn’t make reconfiguring the intersection a condition of its approval. But the company had its traffic engineer Dave Sullivan come up with a plan to eliminate the swooping right turn lane that allows cars to roll through the intersection, and reconfigure it into a “T” where drivers would be more likely to come to a full stop before making a right turn.
Souchons said that if the town wanted to bring the proposal to the Connecticut Department of Transportation, Fine Fettle would be willing to pay up to $50,000 towards the reconfiguration – which she said is what the company estimated it would cost.
The discussion of traffic dominated discussion to the point that Friedmann asked the public to avoid the topic in their comments on the application.
“We understand the concern. We get that, we have analyzed it,” Friedmann said. “We understand the conclusion from the traffic engineers that the level of service doesn’t change, and those of us who have been doing this for a while understand what ‘level of service doesn’t change’ means for the town. We’ve got that.”
Friedmann said the commission wouldn’t be on solid footing to reject the application if traffic is its only concern. While the commission understood that traffic is an issue around the I-95 ramp, “traffic is traffic,” and it wouldn’t work as the only reason for denying an application, he said.
“We’re looking at the regulations to see if there’s anything else that might be overwhelmed by all the discussion about traffic,” Friedmann said. “Is there something else that we missed here?”
In his traffic analysis, Del Rio pointed to parking as a potential concern. While the plan includes one more space than required, but he said there were concerns that the small lot wouldn’t be able to handle a continuous flow of traffic in and out.
Friedmann also keyed in on the amount of parking on the site. The building has 27 spaces, and Friedman said that the plan only set aside 10 for employee parking – not enough for the 15 to 23 employees Fine Fettle estimated would be working there, and leaving just 17 spaces for customers, which would be difficult to manage during peak hours with an estimated 45 customers per hour.
Zachs said the majority of Fine Fettle’s employees work before the dispensary opens, preparing pre-orders. The company also offers its employees incentives to bike, carpool or take a ride share like Uber to work, which they’ve seen cut employee parking demand in half at their existing dispensaries. And they are working to find additional employee parking elsewhere in the area, he said.
Zachs said Fine Fettle can “throttle” the number of customers visiting at a time by only selling to customers by pre-order and by a predetermined time for pick-up. He said the company would be fine with the commission including those practices as conditions of its approval.
The commission agreed to continue the public hearing to its Oct. 3 meeting to give the traffic engineers time to submit any further comments. Friedmann said the commission would likely close the hearing at that meeting, then vote at the meeting after that on whether to approve the application.