STAMFORD – During a Zoning Board public hearing on Fine Fettle’s application to sell recreational marijuana in its shop at 12 Research Drive last May, not one resident spoke.
When Curaleaf made a similar application for its store at 814 East Main St. in January, three people called in to the Zoning Board meeting with questions or concerns.
But things may get a lot louder for Sweetspot, the city’s third applicant, during a not-yet-scheduled Zoning Board hearing on its application to open up shop at 111 High Ridge Road.
The reason, objectors say, is location, location, location.
Fine Fettle is in an industrial park. Curaleaf is in a highly commercialized zone. But Sweetspot is looking to operate in a small shopping center in a mixed residential-retail neighborhood at Bull’s Head, the geographic center of Stamford.
Two issues form the heart of the objections.
One is traffic.
Bull’s Head is a high-volume intersection where five busy thoroughfares converge – Long Ridge, High Ridge and Cold Spring roads, and Summer and Bedford streets. Opponents say it will become more congested once businesses now being built at Bull’s Head are completed, including Frank Pepe’s Pizzeria Napoletana, Shake Shack, DIG restaurant, a Starbuck’s coffee shop and a Whole Foods grocery store.
The other issue is that the site draws lots of children, opponents say.
A draw for kids
The shopping center at Bull’s Head has two buildings set in a parking lot bordered by High Ridge Road, and Oaklawn and Halpin avenues. It has a nail salon, hair salon, uniform store, dermatologist’s office, weight-loss center, hearing-aid center, and fix-it shop.
But it also has Code Ninjas, a camp that teaches kids to code by building video games; Tutor Me SOS, which offers individualized instruction for students of all grades; and the Firefly Pediatric Urgent Care Center.
Not only are Oaklawn and Halpin avenues home to many families, opponents say, but school buses drop students at the Bull’s Head site for after-school tutoring, and the urgent care center’s patients are children.
Opponents of Sweetspot’s application are organizing on social media – a petition on Change.org had almost 700 signatures Wednesday afternoon – and watching city board meetings online.
Some watched Tuesday night, when the Planning Board took up Sweetspot’s application. Approval squeaked by with two members voting for it and three abstaining from voting.
The application now goes before the Zoning Board, which will hold a hearing at which the public may speak. A date has yet to be set.
Weed or wine
Observers of Tuesday’s Planning Board meeting learned that three Stamford High School graduates run Sweetspot – Jason Webski, the chief executive officer; Ben Herbst, chief business development officer; and Blake Costa, chief operating officer.
Herbst said he wanted to let people know about Sweetspot, which was formed seven years ago and has 11 licenses in five states.
“Some people consume cannabis the way other people drink a glass of wine at the end of the day. Our average customer is over 40 years old,” Herbst said. “I think there is a misconception that a (store attracts) a lot of young people doing nefarious things. That’s not the case.”
Costa said some of the information circulating about Sweetspot is inaccurate, including that there will be an armed guard.
“There are no plans for armed guard,” Costa said. “We sometimes have a security guard, based on location and crime stats,” but “our analysis of this site shows it does not warrant a security guard.”
Cannabis retailers are highly regulated by the state. Costa said they are required to store their products in a vault, the same as a pharmacy is required to store medications, and install multiple indoor and outdoor security cameras, plus keep the building well-lit.
“It reduces crime in the area because of that,” Costa said.
Store employees are required to verify the identity of medical marijuana patients to ensure they are state qualified, and verify that recreational customers are at least 21, he said. The state prohibits customers from consuming products in the store or parking lot.
Herbst said traffic and parking will not be a problem because customers move in and out of the store quickly; the average transaction takes 4 minutes, he said.
Not a smoke shop
Their attorney, Lisa Feinberg of Carmody Torrance Sandak & Hennessey, said people sometimes confuse licensed marijuana retailers with smoke shops. Unlike smoke shops – and liquor stores – marijuana retailers are prohibited by the state from advertising products on site, Feinberg said.
“This will be a discreet storefront with minimal signage, according to state regulations,” she said.
The Connecticut attorney general this week announced a crackdown on smoke shops that are illegally selling cannabis products.
Costa said licensed marijuana retailers “take away from the black market.” Bootleg drugs “are readily accessible to kids,” Costa said.
“As a father … I say the less cannabis on the black market, the less our children will use it,” Costa said.
Feinberg said Sweetspot’s plan fulfills the city’s master plan to encourage retail outside the downtown and along major routes, and to fill empty commercial spaces. If approved, the marijuana retailer will fill the Bull’s Head space left by Kumon Learning Center.
Lindsey Cohen, an associate planner in the city’s Land Use Bureau, said the project does not call for changes to the master plan, or to the zoning map or text; it fits the commercial district; and it meets distance requirements from the existing marijuana retailers.
That’s what matters, Planning Board member Jennifer Godzeno said.
“I am a parent of small children and my friends are the parents of small children and the question I get from them is, ‘When are we going to permit another one of these?’ marijuana retailers,” Godzeno said. “That might not meet some of the perceptions. I’m not sure there is a way to define ‘family friendly’ that isn’t subjective. Our role at the Planning Board is to look at the regulations and statutes and precedents. We can set objective perimeters for how far this should be from homes or schools, but none of those regulations exist right now.”
‘An amazing spot’
That’s true, said the Planning Board chair, Theresa Dell, though the Zoning Board is working on regulations now. Still, Dell said, the traffic congestion and accessibility to children concern her.
“I’m not really opposed to it, I’m just not sure this is the right location,” Dell said. “Even though you meet the master plan codes and the zoning regulations, I feel this spot might not be right for your endeavor.”
The next step is the Zoning Board, where Stamford residents will speak up, said Mona Mitri, owner of Tutor Me SOS, a business in the shopping center.
“It’s an amazing spot, central to many schools and to all of Stamford, even Shippan and North Stamford,” Mitri said. “It’s close enough to everybody. I love everything about it.”
The parking lot gets full enough that Firefly Pediatric Urgent Care had to reserve spaces for patients, Mitri said, and there are many children coming and going.
“I offer free tutoring to encourage kids to come for support because they are still struggling with learning losses from COVID-19. I have tried to create a model of peace of mind for parents. But this is creating a lot of agitation,” Mitri said. “I’m not opposed to them wanting a business. I understand that. And marijuana is legal. It’s just not the right location.”