STAMFORD – A marijuana retailer whose application to open a store at Bull’s Head was rejected said the company isn’t walking away.
The reason for the rejection is murky, given that the application fulfilled all of the city’s zoning requirements, said Jason Webski, chief executive officer of Sweetspot.
“We want someone to explain why, exactly, this was not approved,” said Webski, a Stamford native. “We are not backing down.”
Last month, four of five Zoning Board members voted “no” on the Sweetspot proposal, concurring with neighbors who said it would be too close to homes; share a shopping center with businesses that serve children; and generate traffic in a congested area. Board members also said they want a temporary moratorium on new cannabis businesses in Stamford, which already has two.
But the board chair, David Stein, said he saw no reason to vote “no.” So Stein abstained.
Webski said that makes his point.
“The Zoning Board told us, ‘You addressed our concerns, but we just don’t think it’s a good idea’” to allow Sweetspot to open a store in the small shopping center at Bull’s Head, Webski said. “It was more about them making judgments about the cannabis consumer and industry.”
During the June 26 Zoning Board meeting, Stein said, “I have heard what the rest of the board has said, and I agree with much of it. At the same time, we have two dispensaries in town and we’ve … received no evidence that there have been traffic issues with either one. We’ve heard nothing from the police department about issues where people are breaking the law and police need to be called, and we’ve heard nothing about any harm to the neighbors.”
So, Stein said, “While I think a moratorium would be worth considering, my opinion would be to pass this before we impose a moratorium.”
No more diners, either?
Webski said zoning board members who rejected the application appeared to search for a justification.
“When they voted to deny this, they asked, ‘What reasons should we write down?’ I think the excuse is they want to put a moratorium on new cannabis businesses. But we’ve had many conversations with many legislators in Stamford and none have ever said there should be a cap, especially in a zoning hearing,” Webski said. “The state has decided it’s legal. Would the Zoning Board consider moratoriums on diners or movie theaters?”
He thinks “there is some bias held by individuals on the Zoning Board,” Webski said. “They think they are protecting the community from terrible drug people.”
Sweetspot executives have said their average customer is over 40 and “consumes cannabis the way other people drink a glass of wine at the end of the day.”
Webski said he found more cause to be skeptical during the April 11 meeting of the Planning Board, when Sweetspot’s application was approved on two votes after three members abstained from voting.
“Three of five abstained because they knew they didn’t have a reason to say no,” Webski said.
Reason to reject?
Planning Board chair Theresa Dell told Sweetspot executives during the meeting that “even though you meet the Master Plan codes and the zoning regulations for this district, I just feel that this spot may not be the right spot for your endeavor.”
Dell cited the same reasons as those cited by Zoning Board members.
During the Planning Board meeting, member Michael Buccino asked Lindsey Cohen, an associate planner in the city’s Land Use Bureau, “On what basis can we approve or decline something?” Usually, Buccino said, the board is “voting against something because it’s not meeting some requirement … [but] they are meeting the rules necessary to be approved. So on what basis are we legally allowed to say no?”
Cohen replied, “I actually don’t know how to answer that question.”
Dell said a marijuana retailer is similar to liquor stores, which the Planning Board has always tried to keep from operating too close to schools, day-care centers, playgrounds and the like.
Even if a proposal meets the requirements of the city’s Master Plan and zoning codes, the board can consider whether it is “neighborhood-friendly,” Dell said.
In the Sweetspot case, “there are residences directly behind it” and large projects underway at Bull’s Head, including construction of Frank Pepe’s Pizzeria Napoletana, Shake Shack, a Starbuck’s and a Whole Foods grocery, Dell said.
Sweetspot’s application “doesn’t fall under ‘neighborhood’ to me,” Dell said. “There are other factors that we can [weigh] if we think it’s not neighborhood-friendly.”
But, board member Jennifer Godzeno said, “I’m not really quite sure how we define ‘family friendly’ in a way that … doesn’t feel subjective.”
The role of the Planning Board “is to look at existing statutes and precedents” … and consider regulations – such as minimum distance between a marijuana retailer and a school – “from an established set objective criteria,” Godzeno said.
“But none of those regulations exist right now,” Godzeno said.
She, along with Buccino, voted to approve the Sweetspot application. Dell was among the three members who abstained.
How many is too many?
The application then went to the Zoning Board with a recommendation for approval. But four Zoning Board members said no, and agreed to halt any more marijuana retailers for a while.
“Until we can get back to our regulations and come up with some new regulations regarding marijuana facilities, I think Stamford should have a moratorium on any new approvals,” member Bill Morris said.
Member Rosanne McManus said she would like to see how much traffic is generated by the new developments at Bull’s Head.
“I would love for [the Sweetspot application] to come back in six or eight months … I might have different feelings about it,” McManus said. In the meantime, “we will have time to talk about how many [marijuana retailers] we think the city of Stamford can hold.”
Webski said he thinks decisions should be based more on evidence than feelings or judgements. He said the Zoning Board approved another marijuana retailer, Curaleaf at 814 East Main St., though it is surrounded by dwellings.
“There are far more residential homes on East Main because of the massive apartment buildings near there,” Webski said. “To me, the takeaway is that the board is comfortable putting dispensaries in certain communities in Stamford and protecting other communities.”
Planning Board officials have said that CuraLeaf is set in the corner of a large shopping center lot and separated from the apartments by fencing.
Zoning Board members, along with the Land Use Bureau chief, did not return requests for comment on their vote to reject the Sweetspot application.
Webski said Sweetspot is consulting an attorney and seeking discussions with municipal officials.
“We will pursue a conversation with the city,” he said. “We hope to engage in an open dialogue for a solution.”
He thinks government should operate more objectively, Webski said.
“In every city across the country, the Zoning Board is the most powerful agency. Other types of agencies have checks and balances. But in Stamford the Zoning Board isn’t even elected,” Webski said.
Stamford Zoning Board members are appointed by the mayor and approved by the Board of Representatives.
“Going in front of the Zoning Board and dealing with people who have so much control over your livelihood is very intimidating,” Webski said. “I think systems have to get better. They have to evolve.”