STAMFORD – Residents concerned about children and increased traffic near a proposed recreational marijuana dispensary were overshadowed by general protests against state marijuana legalization on Monday.
Last month, the city’s Planning Board narrowly voted to allow a hybrid medical-recreational marijuana dispensary, Sweetspot, to operate at 111 High Ridge Road – a shopping center which houses liquor stores, hair salons and weight-loss centers, in addition to a tutoring center, a video game coding center for children and a pediatric urgent care.
For more than three hours on Monday night, residents discussed the third potential recreational dispensary in Stamford at the virtual Zoning Board meeting. And many pushed back against the state’s recent legalization of adult marijuana use altogether.
“Marijuana is still federally illegal and we don’t want it around our children,” resident Paul Arvoy said at the hearing.
Some used their allotted three minutes to share personal stories about family members who slipped into opioid addictions after trying marijuana, or to caution against consequences for the community down the road.
But Sweetspot founders and staff reminded attendees that the point of the hearing was not to debate adult marijuana use, but to consider whether the dispensary meets zoning standards.
“Cannabis is here. It’s legal,” said Lisa Feinberg, Sweetspot’s attorney with Carmody Torrance Sandak & Hennessey. “This is a commercial use proposed on a commercial property in a commercial zone.”
Under Stamford zoning regulations, recreational marijuana dispensaries are permitted in the commercial-retail neighborhood by High Ridge Road, Halpin Avenue and Oaklawn Avenue, so long as the applicant secures a special permit. To do so, Sweetspot must prove that the dispensary is appropriate in relation to the surrounding area.
The owner of Tutor Me SOS, the nearby tutoring center for students of all ages, joined the virtual meeting to clarify she is not against marijuana use, but detested the proposed location.
“I’m a cancer survivor and my son has had multiple heart surgeries, so I have an incredible compassion for people who might need it and I’m very understanding,” owner Mona Mitri said. “But this is absolutely not the right location.”
Mitri said the tutoring center is less than 20 feet away from the proposed location, and her students would see all dispensary activity. The older students who drive to the location, she added, would also have trouble navigating the increased traffic and busy parking lot.
“My car has been hit, and it [turned] out to be my 16-year-old student. They had to pay me $1,000 for repairs,” Mitri said. “I’d be happy to provide you with any receipt that you’d like to see. We have accidents all the time.”
Stuart Silverstein, medical director of the neighboring Firefly After Hours Pediatrics, said he understands recreational marijuana dispensaries are allowed in Stamford, but questioned why the city would permit Sweetspot at 111 High Ridge Road.
“You can have it in Stamford, but not here,” he said. “You have a tutoring center, pediatric urgent care, coding, children playing in the street. You guys are going to sleep at night and say to yourselves, ‘We’re okay with this.’”
Silverstein said nearby children would be aware of it regardless of whether Sweetspot advertised discreetly.
“When you have a daisy chain of cars going there from morning to night, as happens in most of the dispensaries, children in the area – children that go to Mona’s tutoring place, children that come to Firefly – will see that. They’re not blind,” Silverstein said.
Before the Zoning Board opened the hearing to public comment, the applicants addressed growing community concerns, including in an online petition with almost 800 signatures and numerous social media posts.
Blake Costa, Sweetspot’s chief operating officer and director of security, explained the storefront would not “overtly” advertise marijuana via flyers or large signs across the city. Even if children knew about the dispensary, he added, they are unable to enter as staff verifies customer identification before entering the retail area.
Costa, who was born and raised in Stamford, argued Sweetspot would actually reduce underage marijuana use.
“A child, regardless of their age, can access cannabis through the black market,” he said. “When you put a highly, highly regulated cannabis facility in that area, you take away from the black market.”
The applicants also addressed concerns about increased traffic by the already busy Bull’s Head intersection, where five streets meet.
David Sullivan, manager of highways and transportation planning for Sweetspot’s traffic consultant, SLR International Corporation, said there would be no significant impact on nearby traffic. He estimated that Sweetspot would generate 46 trips during the weekday afternoon peak hour and 70 trips at the peak hour on Saturdays.
Still, residents argued the impact would be significant, as traffic conditions were already poor.
Ria Iparraguirre, a lifelong High Ridge resident and self-proclaimed marijuana enthusiast, said a post-quarantine uptick in neighborhood traffic deemed her usual running route unsafe, and Sweetspot would only make it worse.
“Cars are not respectful and don’t stop for anyone,” Iparraguirre said. “… Now, imagine adding into the mix a store that sells a product that’s all the rage, and you’re telling me that there’ll be absolutely no issues with traffic in an already notoriously trafficked area of Stamford.”
Whether they were concerned about the proposed location or simply against adult marijuana use, those opposed to Sweetspot competed with those who looked forward to the potential new dispensary.
Michael Berg, a father of two, said the biggest drug problem the city is facing is opioids and heroin – not marijuana.
“Education. That’s what’s going to solve this problem,” Berg said. “Not pretending cannabis doesn’t exist.”
Jenniffer Esquilin, a mother of four and marijuana user, said she grew up in what most attendees would call “the projects” of Stamford, and said dispensaries are the safest way to keep marijuana off city streets.
“When I was first presented with marijuana, it was [in] my parking lot, it was at my bus stop, it was at school, it was behind the yard at the playground,” Esquilin said. “Having a dispensary takes it away from the children in the street.”
Esquilin said Sweetspot would not affect traffic conditions by the shopping center, but would provide a safe place for adults to purchase marijuana.
At the end of the hearing, Zoning Board members closed Sweetspot’s application. The board did not vote on whether to approve the special permit request.