STAMFORD – One online petition opposing a marijuana retailer who wants to open shop at Bull’s Head has nearly 800 signatures and another has more than 300 signatures.
Opponents say many people are contacting City Hall to object to an application before the Zoning Board to allow a marijuana retailer in the shopping center at 111 High Ridge Road.
On Monday zoning officials – seeking to quell emotions and confusion – abandoned a planned change in regulations governing marijuana dispensaries.
But only half a dozen people attended a meeting set up by marijuana company Sweetspot to discuss the operation, said Jason Webski, the chief executive officer.
Webski provided CT Examiner with a photograph of the April 19 meeting at the Hilton Stamford Hotel. It shows a nearly empty room.
Webski said Wednesday Sweetspot executives believed there was “a lot of opposition” to the company’s zoning application to open a store in the small shopping center set in a residential neighborhood.
“That was our initial interpretation, so we wanted to meet with people to explain how we can mitigate their concerns,” Webski said. “We brought a full team to a Stamford hotel and prepared a presentation, expecting hundreds of angry residents to come out.”
Instead, a handful of residents spent a couple of hours at a meeting Webski said was “tense,” but “we had a good conversation.”
The meeting took place roughly a week after the Planning Board approved Sweetspot’s application on April 11. The Zoning Board is expected to consider it – and hold a public hearing – in May, though a date has not been confirmed.
If the Zoning Board approves Sweetspot’s plan, it will become the third marijuana retailer in Stamford. Fine Fettle operates a store at 12 Research Drive and CuraLeaf has one at 814 East Main St.
Joe Andreana Jr., who lives on Halpin Avenue beside the shopping center, said he was disappointed when so few people showed up for the meeting with Sweetspot executives. Andreana started both petitions opposing the Sweetspot plan.
“They only sent letters to people within 500 feet” of the shopping center, Andreana said. “So other people who might be concerned would not have gotten a letter.”
Webski said the company’s goal was to reach Stamford residents who would be most affected. He questioned the value of the petitions Andreana posted on Change.org.
“It seemed very odd to us that ‘hundreds’ of people signed this petition and so few showed up. Knowing what we know about online bots, it’s hard to really believe these were signed by real people,” Webski said. “On our end, we have hundreds of letters signed by hand from taxpaying Stamford residents, with names that can be cross-checked. There is far more support for this location than opposition. It’s just that the opposition is much louder.”
Andreana said Change.org allows him as a petition creator to research the signatures. He requested a report on his original petition when it had 766 signatures, Andreana said. Though not all signers include their hometown, the report showed that 396 were from Stamford, he said. Including Stamford, a total of 523 were from Connecticut, which most likely indicates commuters, Andreana said.
“They are people from Greenwich and other towns who travel High Ridge Road to get to work,” he said.
Several days ago Andreana started another petition that, Wednesday afternoon, had 326 signatures. Of those, 180 identified as Stamford residents, he said.
He started the second petition because Sweetspot told him during the April 11 meeting that the first contained inaccuracies, Andreana said.
The first petition said there would be armed guards outside the Sweetspot shop, but that would happen only if crime statistics warrant that for the site, and Bull’s Head does not, Webski said.
The first petition said zoning officials were seeking to change the city’s Master Plan to permit the Bull’s Head shop. But the change only would have eliminated “purpose” in the definition of medical marijuana because “people now know what medical marijuana is,” Land Use Bureau Chief Ralph Blessing said Wednesday.
“It wouldn’t have changed any standards, (such as) where medical marijuana dispensaries could be located or not located, how far they have to be apart or what signage they can use,” Blessing said. “But because some people construed that this text change would mean an expansion of where medical marijuana could be, we decided to take it out to calm down everyone’s nerves. We were aware of social media postings that the text change would allow dispensaries everywhere, which is clearly wrong, but I acknowledge that dispensaries are a sensitive topic.”
Andreana said he understands that the zoning regulation change was supposed to “just clear stuff up,” but “it actually made (the regulations) less protective of neighbors who would be impacted by a dispensary.”
Under the now-abandoned change, the term dispensary would “refer to medical and recreational, even though one is for palliative use for people with health conditions and the other is for pleasure, like a liquor store,” Andreana said. “It’s two completely different uses. So people made some noise.”
Opponents of the Sweetspot plan accept that marijuana is now legal in Connecticut, Andreana said. What they don’t accept is that retailers may bring difficulties on their every-day lives, he said.
“I don’t think a dispensary should go in a neighborhood like ours, even if it’s classified as partly commercial,” he said. “It’s still a neighborhood.”
The odd-shaped parking lot in the shopping center is unsafe for the children who take buses there after school for tutoring services provided by several of the businesses, and traffic volume is already a huge concern for people living on Halpin and Oaklawn avenues, Andreana said.
“If they proposed a Chick-fil-A for that site, I would be against it,” he said. “It’s about the safety of people going in and out. It’s about having enough parking spaces for the pediatric urgent care center. Traffic is already hazardous and this will make it worse.”
It’s especially true because of other developments underway at Bull’s Head, including Frank Pepe’s Pizzeria Napoletana, Shake Shack, DIG restaurant, a Starbuck’s coffee shop and a Whole Foods grocery store, he said.
Many opponents are concerned about the children who are customers of shopping center businesses and live nearby, he said.
“State law says a marijuana dispensary must not be located within 1,000 feet of a school, church or day-care center,” Andreana said.
“There’s a reason for that. It has an influence. When kids see people going in and out buying marijuana, it makes it acceptable.”
Webski said Sweetspot’s plan complies with all city and state regulations – minimal signage that does not draw young people to the store; a reception area where customers must show identification before they are allowed in; storing products in vaults instead of displaying them on the sales floor; packing products in child-proof bags; interior and exterior video surveillance and alarm systems; cashless ATMs; and more.
“The state prohibits us from allowing consumption in the facility or on the property, including the parking lot, or we would lose our license,” Webski said. “There are all kinds of state regulations to take into consideration when you’re looking for a location. It took us a year to find this location; it’s not like there are a ton of appropriate sites.”
Webski and childhood friend Ben Herbst founded Sweetspot in 2017. Webski and Herbst, the chief business development officer, are Stamford natives and graduates of Stamford High School. Another SHS grad, Blake Costa, is the chief operating officer.
“We take this very seriously. Our average consumer is 45 years old. Younger people, unfortunately, tend to buy unregulated products on the black market,” Webski said. “Some of these neighbors have done a good job creating an illusion that most people oppose this application, but there are far more medical patients who want us to be there.”